17 August 2008

Antidotes to Groupthink: Honesty

First, a comment about the order in which these antidotes are being discussed. I'm coming late to this particular antidote, honesty, but that should not be taken as a measure of its importance.

It's difficult to arrange these groupthink antidotes in an 'order of importance' ranking. This is because groupthink is a 'systems' problem, and the antidotes are a 'countersystem'. All of them are necessary. The whole will not work without all of its parts... even though one may not be consciously aware of all parts at the time one is deploying them.

It is usually pretty obvious whether honesty is present or absent in a given system. The values of that system will either welcome it or stifle it; in my experience this really is one of the few things in human interactions that is on/off, black or white.

I've seen systems that tried to be partially honest [Meta-Discussion vs. Groupthink illustrates a system that I believe was trying this gambit: honest about the fact that individuals outside the system had certain problems, and in denial about any possibility that similar problems could exist among those within]. Partial, selective honesty never really works; it's an illusion at best. Such a system may limp along for a surprisingly long time, but when it falls, it falls hard, and it exacts a horrific price from those who are expected to sacrifice their own integrity and wellbeing to preserve whatever illusion the group is bent on preserving. The families of high-functioning alcoholics are illustrative of this pattern; all problems but the alcoholism may be addressed, but because the alcoholism is the central problem, nothing can ever be resolved.

Selective honesty isn't honesty.

It is usually most obvious to us that a system is partially honest or frankly dishonest when we stand outside it, or are detached from it, but it is possible to detect this from within. A dishonest system will employ defense mechanisms very similar to those used by individuals to avoid facing things that are painful [for abuse and trauma survivors] or things that [for abusers] expose their underlying objectives and manipulations. Sometimes the deployment of these defenses can be quite jarring.

Examples include:
Denial ["I didn't see anything like that! You're imagining things." "Well, I think she's a wonderful person - she's always been nice to me."]

Evasion ["Let's talk about that later." "This isn't the proper forum to discuss that issue." and my personal favorite, the dodger, who agrees that this is really important and you must discuss it, but... something else, or someone else, always has to come first; and something else, or someone else, always will.]

Distraction [A form of evasion, but with attention directed to another object; changing the subject: "Well, I don't know about that, but I think we have a serious problem with the international space station."]

Displacement [Also a form of evasion in this case, but with attention directed to an activity rather than a subject: "That's very interesting, but let's golf / eat / watch TV right now."]

Attack [This can be either direct, as in "What? How dare you say such things!" or indirect, as when you are suddenly taken to task about your cooking / cleaning / failure to complete something that you completed days ago / hair / etc., in which case it serves as a more aggressive form of distraction and displacement.]
When you see a system deal with problems - and those who identify them - by turning to these forms of avoidance, you are seeing a dishonest system.

It's not always so obvious to us when we are being less than honest with ourselves, but this is the essential work of recovery. I find that a very useful flag to watch for is rapid, intense anger that flares quickly and disproportionately. [I must immediately add that this is also a key warning sign of abuse in progress; once we realize we are being abused, there's a tendency to become mightily pissed when we realize it's going on right here and now, again. However, as we learn to recognize abuse and accept our right to be angry about it, and as strategies for avoiding, preventing, and stopping it become part of our repertoire, it becomes easier to tell when our anger is justified vs unjustified self-protection; the anger also diminishes, becoming a quiet, finely tuned signal that something is amiss.]

Another useful sign is when we instantly leap to justifying whatever it is that we have done, said, etc. that is under challenge; again, however, this is also a symptom of abuse, when our abusers put us down and keep us constantly on the defensive.

A third, very insidious sign, is the inability to remain focused on the particular issue that we are trying to confront about our own behavior or beliefs. If we find our mind flying off onto anything and everything rather than the matter at hand, that's a pretty clear indication that on some level we don't want to discuss it... even with ourselves. In this case, sometimes the only thing to do is to treat one's mind like a balky horse, and try the subject daily [or weekly, in the presence of a therapist] until we're able to stay with it.

And I would be remiss if I did not include a very important alert.

There are times when the things we are not facing are things that are so profoundly sad, so destructive to us, so horrific, that we cannot possibly face them alone and survive intact. Honesty is not enough in such situations; one needs support, wise counsel, and the availability of therapeutic aids [i.e., it may be essential to face some things in the office of a caring therapist, with an antidepressant on board.] Never, ever force yourself to stay with any issue that feels this threatening - on your own. Seek support and assistance, and set a cautious pace. This is not weakness, it is wisdom and healthy self-care.

It can be difficult at times to separate healthy self-protection from unhealthy self-deception; but it is important. Here, things are not black or white; here, we may need denial to protect us from things that would half kill us, if we tried to face them alone; but with support and care, we may reach a point where we can and must face those selfsame things if we are ever to be well and whole.

As we progress in our healing, as we face and surmount each issue, we progress in honesty. It becomes easier to know when we are deceiving ourselves - and easier to give up self-deception as a strategem. As we become less inclined to deceive ourselves, we also become more difficult to deceive.

And thus is groupthink's power broken.


Blogger Meg said...

I have recently recognised within myself, that when I once again face a narcissist, or abuser's apprentice, in action that I find myself smiling as much as I get angry. I guess you could say I have healed somewhat. They still have the power to silence you with their glib and nonsensical accusations, but when you realise you just told them 'no' and they are reacting profusely and disproportionately, you find yourself going....another one.....these idiots are everywhere, and then their words just become so much camouflage for their real agenda.

I wonder if 'heart'(as in knowing your own, wearing it on your sleeve, refusing to compromise on your own feelings), or 'the ability to discern the genuine issues quickly' is an antidote to groupthink as well. You still get exhausted, but after all my experience with abusers, I am enjoying using the wisdom I have gained and seeing the results. It's like watching a firework display.

That's not to say you don't still feel hurt and angry or that other people don't still look at you funny because you aren't keeling over at the tirade which is coming at you. That peace which comes from knowing your enemy is quite profound. You are still tempted to fear that you are wrong maybe, you know, checking yourself just in case. But the genuine article always reassures you in the end, and I have found eventually you are vindicated in one way or another if you wait just a little while.

Thankyou stormchild for these insights. I believe you could write a book with all the understanding you have.

18 August, 2008 22:12  

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