So much is said about the importance of executive functioning.
Frequently this is done by people whose executive functioning is impaired, biased, and has massive blind spots. Unfortunately for the poor executive class, there’s no one there to point out their blind spots. It seems most times that status and roles typically still trump common sense in our society.
How could this be? We spend so much time helping people become rational, reasonable humans. Is the educational industrial complex failing us? It certainly is failing students. The system that needs floor cleaners and middle managers and poverty and crime in order to continue? Our education system is working just fine…
That’s a long way of saying that our education system sucks. Bigly.
We’ve been tricked into thinking that our executive functioning, the reasonable, rational aspect of our nervous systems’ engagement with the field of existence, needs to always reign supreme.
And? If we couldn’t be reasonable and rational at times, we wouldn’t be able to survive. Our reliance on rationality and executive functioning gets us in trouble from time to time.
Our rational, reasonable self? That’s like the wheelhouse on a ship. There you have the all of the executive functions of the ship. The steering, control over motors, maps, charts, communications and navigation equipment all live in the wheelhouse. As do the captain and the other key decision makers.
The technology available to the executive? Impressive. Impressive indeed. This technology however is secondary to other aspects of the ship. The hull and the engine? They are essential to keep ships afloat and moving. In the simplest of watercraft, the hull is essential and the propulsion comes next. I have yet to see a wheelhouse or a bridge in a dory. As humans with executive function? We’re in a very elite class of ship.
The hull and the propulsion system - the engine? Those are the social / emotional realities of our nervous system. They do what ever is necessary to keep us afloat and moving forward. This is the realm of what Gestaltists call the creative adaptation. Here we get stuck. Stories we told ourselves and things we once did in order to survive? They’re no longer necessary.
Unfortunately, we are foolish and believe if we had to - and it once worked - it’s difficult for any change from that feels like a threat. It seems, whenever people enter into a state of play, their creative adjustments become laid bare. The people pleaser, the golden one, the dominator, the shit disturber - all expose themselves when they are playing. Play has an element to joy. It also has elements of aggression, yielding, supporting, assisting, achieving, failing and ability sorting.
I’ve missed things in the list above, please feel free to add and explain in an email or in the comments.
So our emotional systems are like the hull and engine of the ship.
Our impulsive brain? The land of fight, flight, freeze / shut down / get ready to die?
That part? That’s like the ocean.
So, If you’re engine is shot, there’s a crack in the hull and there’s a storm whipping up ninety foot seas? It does not matter what the executive says. The boat stays where it is.
If only it were that simple. For years, the dominant approach was the dubiously ‘scientifically proven’ methods of therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). In CBT people are asked to get their cognitive functioning to deal with negative feelings. Negative feelings? I don’t get it. Feelings are like having a stomach. Or having a foot. I don’t have a negative stomach. I don’t have negative feet. I just have them.
The idea is that the executive is in charge is laughable. The wheelhouse is trying to tell the engine not to burn, the hull not to leak and the ocean not to storm. The best we can hope for is to notice the storms before they arrive, create space for them to blow over and understand and live with what is. In this sense the executive is in charge of how we negotiate our bigger feelings. The executive cannot make them go away.
Yet, this is what people seem to foolishly want.
The Stoics do too. All kinds of crazy shit is going sideways and you’ll hear Mark Manson wailing from the corner of the room “Is this decision in alignment with your values” as some weird assed space creature feasts on his entrails. The engine is out and it’s blowing a gale and he’s looking for his ‘true north’ Simon Sinek is looking for his ‘why’ and no one is paying any attention to the reality of the wind.
It’s bass ackwards to expect the wheelhouse to put out a fire in the engine room. It’s remarkably foolish to expect the person on the helm to calm the ocean.
Next time you meet someone new, try to pay attention to where they are. Are they rational and grounded? Is the engine room active? Stormy seas? How can you get a feel for where people are?
And if you can, how do you engage them in play?
One Derful Thing
Imagine being eight years old.
Imagine what that felt like.
Imagine the things you may have dreamt of .
Imagine the adventures.
Imagine the secret place.
Where was it?
How did you get there?
Did you ride bikes over jumps?
Did you ride a horse?
Did you fly a dragon?
Is this in a cave? A city? A tree? On an island?
Draw a picture as best you can of your ultimate childhood clubhouse.
Add as many details as you can.
Put it up in a place people will notice and ask about it.
Tell them lies. Make each one more ridiculous and fantastic than the last.