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Skepticism v. Instincts, round 12 August 4, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, Polyamory, relationships, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, this blog is about skepticism, primarily. I have said, many times, that skepticism is my primary philosophical orientation, and that many of my beliefs and lifestyle choices emanate, ultimately, from a natural sense of skepticism–of seeking the truth over comfort, with the help of logic, empiricism, etc.

But what about instinct? What about deep feeling and the uncertain world of emotion which drives us? What do we do with that? What do we do when, not having all the evidence available, we have a deeply emotional feeling about something? How much should we listen to this?

Here’s a puzzle. Let’s say that my instincts have made me feel very strongly, about certain situations and/or people, which I have ignored because I thought it fair to not merely allow my emotions to sway me when more objective means of judgment could give me a better conclusion. It sounds rational, right? My mere feelings are not sufficient, and I should, as a good skeptic, demand some more evidence before allowing myself to make a decision or form a conclusion. So, I table the feeling and try to wait for more evidence.

This tendency has ended up scarring me, more than a couple of times.

Upon first meeting a former metamour, whom I have written about before, all my alarms rang in my head that this person was problematic. But I ignored these alarms, these instinctual judgments made at a level not quite conscious, and tried to be open-minded and skeptical. I saw that people around him liked him, he seemed popular and well-liked. So I ignored those instincts and allowed myself to be swayed by the patience required to get all the data. That didn’t end well.

Before I moved to Atlanta with an ex (who ended up abandoning me there) my instincts told me that making the move would be a positive experience, and that those warning me against it were just being overly skeptical. I was feeling optimistic and adventurous with someone I loved, respected, and trusted. That didn’t end well, either.

In other words, my instincts have been wrong and right, and so I have “learned,” repeatedly, to ignore them because they are unreliable as a means towards truth.

Like a good skeptic.

And yet….

And yet there are times when those instincts are really strong, and I have to wonder whether this is one of the times I need to listen to them or, you know, not this time. Because our brains, while prone to error, also have tools which can alert us to subtle signals which give us information about the world. Sometimes, our instincts are right, and when we have been hurt, we tend to be sensitive to the signals that we have run into before. So, sometimes a gut feelings is worth paying significant attention to.

But where we draw the line between following our gut and holding out for more information is related to how much we trust ourselves. And if one is insecure and has self-trust issues (hey there, nice to meet you!), one might end up erring on the side of ignoring those instincts where we should have given them more consideration.

I think that I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that most of the times I have a really strong feeling about something, I’m at least partially right. And, yet, I more often than not ignore my gut feelings to my detriment, because I feel like giving a person or situation a chance, even though it does not feel right.

In short, I do not trust my own feelings and judgment because I want to be appropriately skeptical. That is, I recognize that my instincts and feelings can be wrong. So, the question is whether this is a form of self gaslighting, or is this healthy behavior?

To what degree is questioning how I feel, at a gut-level, a healthy method of self-reflection and introspection? There are many who would probably argue that doing it for other people is inappropriate, manipulative, and possibly abusive, insofar as doing so is probably gaslighting; questioning someone else’s feelings and perceptions about something is a form of questioning their ability to perceive the world correctly, after all. But I’m not sure where the line is, especially if we are doing it introspectively.

I believe that it is not only possible, but common, for people to have incorrect perceptions, feelings, and perspectives about the world around them. I believe that some level of wondering “how much are my fears, biases, or lack of understanding making me not see this situation correctly?”is not only appropriate, but necessary in order to be a rational human being.

But at the same time, there is a point where we need to accept that our feelings are sometimes, even when we cannot skeptically check them out, valuable and often spot on. There are times when we need to get the fuck out if something feels creepy or unsafe. There are times when we need to force ourselves to look deeper at a situation, person, or idea when our initial reaction is defensiveness, fear, or anger. Because we are too prone to selection bias and reacting negatively to ideas which do not fit well within our current boundaries and bubbles. And sometimes the bubble we exist within is a lens through which reality is skewed and warped.

Sometimes, what we think of as strength and standing up for ourselves is, in fact, bias skewing our perception. Sometimes, questioning our perception of reality is the appropriate method. That is, if we care about the truth.I’m just not sure how to tell the difference between when my instincts are right, and when they are a warped perspective, filtered through fear, bias, pain, etc.

Our instincts, or deep feelings, and our personal perspectives are not truths, necessarily, but they can often be good signposts. The concept of something being “true for me” is deeply problematic and philosophically sophomoric. As we build an instinctual defense mechanism within us, we need to make sure that the springs, levers, etc of that mechanism are not made out of bias, fear, and pain. Because those building tools will not build a skeptical shield.

As I watch my defensive mechanism work inside me, I am forced to admit that more parts than I’d like are made out of fear, trauma, and pain. I will not ignore the alarms that this mechanism set off, but I damned well will not let a non-skeptical and automatic mechanism make conclusions nor decisions for me. So when the red flag is thrown up from that lever, I’ll stop and take a look at it, but I will not be reactionary insofar as I allow my past pain and fear to determine my future path.

I'm not 42 yet, but I'm starting to feel this meme coming on...

I’m not 42 yet, but I’m starting to feel this meme coming on…

I have learned many signs of problematic behavior in the last few years, from many people. But I will not allow the people that compelled me to build my defenses define those in front of me, on this path. But at the same time, those in front of me on my path will have to contend with someone who has seen some shit, and sure as hell will not allow you to get away with any of it.

Because I’m sick of people’s shit.

More importantly, I’m sick of my own shit.

Meow!

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Polyamory: not the plural of traditional monogamy May 20, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, relationships.
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So, updates and such

Hey there blog readers, remember me?

So, I’ve been a way for a bit. Was between contracts for a while, enjoying Spring, and playing some hockey. I started a new job this week. It seems like a good fit, and they seem to want to make me full time once I get trough the trial period of the contract, which is great. I find myself with a slow-ish afternoon on the last day of this first week, and I decided to say a few things.

A few things.

 

There, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can get on with the such.

Have you ever been in a relationship that was just not going well? I mean, the person is great, you love being with them, but something just isn’t right? Maybe it’s not a good match, maybe one or both of you is going through some shit and it’s getting in the way. Maybe their other relationships are effecting your relationship. In any case, it’s just better being done with it, and while you miss the person, you don’t miss the relationship?

You still love that person, and you probably even miss them, but once the situation is gone and done, you can see all the things you couldn’t before and you don’t want to go back unless things would be different. And you know that they probably will not be.

You know what I mean?

Well, whether you understand or not, the fact is that there is actually a meaning there, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.

I was in a relationship with a lovely, intelligent, and very sexy woman for about 2 years, which ended recently (she ended things, to be clear). I miss her, every day. We have not spoken in about 3 months. The reasons for our relationship ending are not really relevant here, but suffice it to say that I understand why it ended and am no longer angry about it. I’m disappointed, mostly.

But after some time away, some things became clear, and I think that this type of situation is common enough in polyamory to say a few words about it.

It concerns a pattern which is very common to people who are just trying polyamory for the first time, and how they set down rules, expectations, etc which become largely unspoken minefields for the people with whom they become involved. Now, this type of thing is addressed in some of the polyamorous literature (including More Than Two, but I cannot cite the chapter because I don’t have my copy with me, and am too lazy to look it up, currently), but I still think that this particular problem is under-discussed among actual polyamorous people, especially among those who are new to it.

I get it. You are established in your relationship, and you want to make sure that your relationship isn’t threatened. So you make some rules, but more than the rules you expect some level of control over who your partner sees, when they see them, and perhaps establish a hierarchy to make sure you are primary; to make sure your place is not threatened.

Yes, this is about couple privilege and imposed rules and hierarchies. Anyone who gets involved with any such established couples will be subject to an agreement they never made, and further will often have similar expectations on anyone else you might see, because such control becomes the default in how they think about relationships.

What is happening here is traditional models of relationships are being smuggled into a polyamorous situation. As if polyamory was just the plural of traditional monogamy. Spoiler; it’s not.

The control and sense of ownership inherent in most relationships in our culture, which is the basis for much of monogamy, is already a problem on it’s own, but it is especially toxic when people try to apply it to a non-monogamous situation. The result is that the control extends beyond the primary relationship, and seeps into the secondary and tertiary relationships. Anyone who gets involved with such a primary couple risks inheriting the rules, sense of ownership and control, and manipulation involved in such a relationship.

From the point of view of the primary couple, there is no problem. They see this as how it’s always been, and possibly how it should be. They, in short, are comfortable with it (or, at least one of them is; probably the one making the rules). But to those outside, it acts very much like a minor form of oppression. You find yourself subject to rules you didn’t agree to, you find yourself having to defer to the primary relationship almost always, and there is a gap in the potential for intimacy, especially the longer the relationship goes on.

You are, essentially, a second-class partner. And, after a while, the relationship can no longer be a healthy one. One feels stifled, and in some cases we can smell the resentment from our metamours who seek to control our access to their partners, as if they sense the struggling from within the chains thrust upon them.

 

And it’s super hard to see it when it’s happening, unless you are paying really close attention and you have a lot of experience with such things. And it’s hard to talk about these things with the primary couple because they are in a position of privilege, and hence are blind to it. Also, the signs are often ambiguous; it’s really hard to tell the difference between normal conflicts and when you are treating someone in your life like a second-class partner, in some cases.

I think that the most important distinction which is relevant here is this; you should not try to create rules for other people, but you can define your own boundaries. That is, you cannot tell two other people how to go about their relationship, even if you also have a relationship with one or both of them, but you can communicate the edge of your emotional needs, wants, and preferences and allow others to make their own decisions regarding that.

If you aren’t clear, ask yourself this when you come to the point of potential conflict between the needs or wants of two partners;

  • Am I doing/not doing this because I’m afraid to hurt one or both of them, or because I do want to do it this way?
  • And if I am doing it for one of their sake, is it something I would feel comfortable bringing up for re-evaluation or negotiation?
  • And if not, then am I comfortable with the amount of control one person has over my relationship with another?
  • And even if the answers to the above are all “yes”, is my other partner OK with all of this? How might I feel in their place?

 

My relationship with X is negotiable, changeable, etc at the discretion of those directly involved, and not anyone else. And while our more intimate partners, whether through marriage, time, or simple choice, will have some level of influence over our choices, it is of immense importance that we do not leverage such power inordinately, purely out of fear, or merely to save the relationship. We should be focusing on people, not the relationship

Because I know I can influence my partners in how they relate to other people. But should I do so? Is the fact that I may have been with this person longer than them relevant? Is the fact that I may actually be married to him/her, while he/she isn’t, relevant? Is the fact that I believe that I am right about why he/she should act in this way relevant?

We have to be really careful with how we leverage such power, because it’s way to easy to rationalize carrying on old traditional values of relationships into the future of our polyamorous lives. To conserve those problematic relationship concepts, simply because they make us feel safer, more comfortable, etc is no better than to rationalize any cultural concept or practice which seeks to create barriers for each other.

What I’m saying is that I don’t want polyamory to become conservative or traditional, I want it to be radical at least until (that is, if it ever happens that) traditional concepts of relationships are egalitarian and has out-grown those old traditions based in ownership and control.

We have to be careful that we do not cross the barrier between communicating boundaries and creating edicts for other people to follow, because insofar as we cross said barrier, we are manipulating and controlling other people, rather than building trust and intimacy.

 

I write about his because I have seen it. I’ve seen it from all sides. I’ve been the primary partner who sought to control how my partners were with other people. I’ve been the partner caught in the middle of someone trying to control what I did with another. And I’ve been the third person, subjected to rules I didn’t want and was never asked my opinion on. From every angle the situation is shitty, but it is also immensely human. We all are, hopefully, learning and growing. It’s not so much that if we do such a thing we are doing polyamory wrong (fuck that), but we are, perhaps, creating barriers rather than bridges.

Our culture is so full of expectations about relationships that we cannot, even in the polyamorous community, always grow past the concepts of ownership, control, and fear which lay at the basis of our traditional concepts of love, commitment, and sex. It’s hard to parse the lines between what traditions we cherish and value and are healthy from the ones which might be better left behind.

I am still learning how to parse these things myself, so I am no master here (not by any means). Nonetheless,  I will urge you all to pay attention to how the expectations you have about how a relationship is supposed to work and how much influence you have over your partners may be derived from the patriarchal, property-based, and fear-filled concepts of relationships as they are depicted in our culture at large.

This thing, polyamory, is more than just having more partners, it’s also about questioning the concept of what it means to be a partner. It’s more radical than mere addition, it’s a whole new kind of math. Don’t conserve the traditional concepts of relationships in adding more, but instead consider replacing the whole shebang.

Relationships are due for an upgrade, and such upgrades will include questioning everything you believe about love, commitment, and even friendship.

How do you unlearn? April 3, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, relationships.
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Growing up, one of the lessons I learned was that something was not really important unless it was yelled at you.

Related to this, if something is important, you have to yell it. Otherwise, how would the listener know it was important?

Looking back on things, it is clear that people in my life were telling me important things which I should have paid more attention to. But they were not yelling it, so it didn’t contain the emotional import–not sufficient emotional affect–to stand out as a thing to pay specific attention to.

People often tell you what to do, or not to do, if you don’t want to hurt, disappoint, or otherwise do damage to your relationship with them. Most people don’t yell these things. I didn’t know that, until later in life. And I’m still trying to unlearn those early lessons, even today.

 

We all deal with childhood, and family life, with complications and difficulties. Many of the people I have known have had to deal with some amount of annoying, manipulative, or abusive behavior. We all have our baggage. But understanding the baggage of other people, and how that baggage compels problematic behavior, is perhaps one of the most difficult things to navigate.

It’s even harder to learn other people’s baggage is you don’t have a handle on your own, completely.

 

Most of the people out there who I have hurt gave me some form of warning, pleading, or simple conversation to point out what was wrong. The problem was that because I learned that intense, aggressive, and often loud emotional communication was necessary to get one’s attention, I just heard it as conversation without import. It was not that I wasn’t listening, it was that I was trained to listen for something else.

Ever since I realized this (and it’s been quite a while), it has frustrated me more and more that the lesson still is not unlearned.

And so the cycle continues.

I’m sorry.

 

Sacred beliefs; being wrong March 29, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, relationships.
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If you were to look at older posts on this blog, you would see me being critical of how defensive religious people are about their beliefs. In the earlier days of the atheist community, there was a divide between those who were openly critical of people’s faiths and those who wanted to build bridges or who simply didn’t see the point in criticizing or challenging personal beliefs.

Now, after some years, the rifts, arguments, and points of contention have changed, but it strikes me that the same fundamental question is still at hand; what do we do with people’s sacred beliefs?

Of course, this is not a question unique to the atheist community. I’d bet it’s pretty universal across cultures, societies, etc.

So, what about people we don’t like? What about people who have hurt us? What about people we refuse to talk with? I am not very certain of this framing, and I am writing this more with an interest to structure my thoughts than to try and compel a specific argument, but allow me to posit an idea.

As a background for this, allow me to summarize my views on how we rationalize, which I have written about before.

Rationalization:

Not all of our conclusions are truly rationally derived. In fact, I would say that probably a good number of them are not. Through some unseen bias, trauma, idealism, or even dedication to a person or group (groupthink, tribalism, or even loyalty to a loved one), we come to a conclusion that is more based upon emotion than pure rational thinking (a kind of Critique of Pure Reason, as it were), and we then rationalize that emotional decision.

We all do this, a lot. In fact, I notice that it’s much more prevalent the more rational a person thinks they are; it’s often the most logically-minded people who are susceptible to this. (Yes, myself included).

And then we, the rational paragons that we are, defend our emotional conclusions. And we become defensive around the subject of that conclusion. And then those who differ with us become the other, from another tribe, and then we cannot even hear, understand, or possibly even be around those people. We read them unfairly, we credit them with motives which they might not have, and we are unable, and usually unwilling, to hear them.

Friendships, romantic relationships, business partnerships, and all other sorts of human relations are lost through such means, and it often takes years, if it happens at all, to be able to see past the biases which we build when this happens. This is how enemies and estrangements are made, and it’s utterly ridiculous most of the time.

 

Sacred Space

You’ve been hurt. Someone made a decision which had an unwanted result, from your point of view. Maybe you were friends for years, maybe you have only known them for a few months, or maybe they are a family member. Now, aside from the rare person who is actually malicious (and hell, we can almost never be sure that our “enemy” is ever really that person, because it usually feels that way to the harmed), most people who hurt us were not trying to. Their reasons for what they did are probably complicated, they probably regret their actions (at least to some degree), and they are probably not the person that your angry, hurt, and resentful self sees.

And yet I am willing to bet that in the long run that demonized version of them will be the one which you (and your friends who console you) will remember. Because memory is associated with emotion. No matter how good things were, you remember them through the association of that pain.

And so you create a sacred space of belief about that person, what they did, and any contradiction of that narrative are dismissed, like we do with all our beliefs; they survive on the nectar or bias and demonization. I’ve done this, myself. In the period of healing over the least couple of years, I’ve done it to several people. In recent months, I’ve started to doubt my beliefs, with regard to some of these people, and I have begun to question whether the conclusions I reached were true.

In one case, I realized that a specific person who was vilified among the people closest to me was not, in fact, vile at all. I realized that she was someone who was suffering, who made mistakes, and who I loved very much. The details don’t matter here, but suffice it to say that this realization cost me dearly, because I handled it badly.

But the only reason i realized it was because I was able to question the tribalistic groupthink which was forming around this person. I was able, eventually, to see around the biases which others were trying to compel me to accept. And I made the decision which I needed to make, but in the wrong way.

I have always been a person who has been willing to question the most sacred of my personal beliefs. One could frame this as lack of confidence in myself (and that is also partially true), but I believe that it is also a virtue to not be able to look at my personal beliefs as sacred objects not to be questioned. The traditions, childhood dreams, and ideals we carry sometimes blind us to the possibility of transcendent growth. Sometimes ideals are more a hindrance than a boon to personal enlightenment; beware the person of strong conviction, for that conviction is the lens through which they see the world.

 

Being wrong

The result of all this pondering is that I wonder if maybe I have been very wrong about some things. Many things, perhaps.

I have read what some have said about me, and know what others think of me, but despite my flaws (and I certainly have them), I am not the person I see reflected in their thoughts. And if I do not give my view of  others the same revision which I give to my own beliefs, it would be irrational to expect them to do the same. I cannot expect others to see past their biases if I will not see past my own. I have to be willing to be wrong, about everything.

Too many people out there in the various communities in which I have walked are unwilling to hear what some other people have to say, and really hear it. Too much enmity (some of it is actually deserved, but not all of it), too little willingness to reconsider, and too much desire to be right than to be willing to listen. Too much conviction. Too much comfort and certainty about one’s own values and goals, for my taste. Those things are as likely to be cages as virtues.

I’ve lost people I have cared about because I’ve made mistakes, because others have made mistakes, and because (usually) we both made mistakes. We’re human. But an unwillingness to listen, to hear, to drop down the walls between us all is not helping anyone. We all had reasons for the decisions we made, and if we might be willing to look past our feelings a  little bit, perhaps we could see why we might have made the same decision as they did, and perhaps begin to forgive.

Or, you know, we could all just move along feeling self-righteous and  comfortable in whatever tribe we’ve formed. That could be fun too, right?

I’ve been wrong, you’ve been wrong, and we will all be wrong more than we’d like to be. Don’t let the potential for understanding, enlightenment, or intimacy be lost for the sake of your stupid sacred beliefs and conclusions. That’s completely silly.

 

 

Defending your boundaries is hard December 1, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, relationships.
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I’ve been trying to do a better job of defending my boundaries with people, and I’m learning that it’s not easy. Not at all.

I was never taught to defend my boundaries when i was young. Being immensely insecure, I was easy to take advantage of. And people did. It became so normal that people expected me not to stand up for myself. And, of course, resentment builds…..

Feeling disrespected, unwanted, and generally unappreciated builds up. Eventually, you have to stand up. But I had been letting it become sso tense that the emotional baggage I had built up made a calm, rational discussion impossible, even if I wanted it.

So, my recent project is defending my boundaries up front, and I’m been met with a huge amount of resistance. Also, because it’s a new skill, I’m not exactly excelling at it. It’s a skill I need to practice, but I risk simply capitulating if I don’t stand firm.

I am always willing to accept my responsibility for my mistakes. In some cases, i even manage to recognize it, so that I can actually do so. What has been harder is standing up when i believe that someone else has made a mistake. Far too long was I willing to accept responsibility when it was not mine.

What’s hardest is that when other people are struggling with the same thing, and we are both being defensive and trying to defend our boundaries, then conflict arises. Somehow you end up talking past one another, cognitive biases show up, and then both of you start creating a narrative of how you are the one who is more hurt.

When you both are.

And you are both too hurt, angry, and stubborn to try and see past it. Actually, I think maybe it might be impossible to see it when really affected.

And if it’s bad enough, you lose friends, partners, and in some cases family.

And that’s life. And it sucks.

So, here’s to us all trying to defend our boundaries, while keeping in mind that it’s this very struggle which is the cause of so many conflicts. I hope we can all figure it out.