Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 9, 2009

Gaining self-knowledge in a binary fashion

When I was in high-school English class (hey Mr Gooding!), we wrote what seemed like a thousand essays on Emma Woodhouse and her rocky path to self-knowledge, gently guided by the indefatigable Mr Knightley. As the over-analytic but rather naive Emma progresses through the novel, she gradually begins to understand her own feelings as well as better empathizing with those of others – ending of course in marriage. Unfortunately, Austen fails to provide a set of practical tools for understanding oneself in the absence of a 19th century social scene and an appropriate mentor. Luckily, such tools to exist and can occasionally quite helpful, particularly on family occasions or in other stressful situations. I stumbled upon this one today – the 1-up, 1-down method for consciously assessing your mood, on the Enjoymentland blog:

1-up is a positive state, where you are 1 step ahead, in a sense.  You can handle the present moments needs, and you are ready for the next moment.  You have a reserve of positive sentiment, and have the energy to be kind, compassionate and helpful to the people around you. 1-down is the opposite, a negative step.  1 step behind the curve.  You are trying to catch up, slightly or severely overloaded, and unprepared for the current or next moments.  You have a deficit of positive sentiment, and are hungry for energy.  In order to get out of this state, you need to recieve energy from some source, and in the meantime you can’t afford to give your own energy out.  This results in defensive emotions: anger, impatience, sadness, fear.

The trick in any kind of effective self-assessment seems to consists of two things – the capacity for some kind of independent or detached analysis, and a feedback loop that provides options for fixing the problem and bringing the indicator back into the desired state.

When I used to go canyoning in Australia, we had a system for ascertaining whether anyone in the group was at risk of hypothermia. The problem is that, when people get cold (and even when wearing a wetsuit it can get chilly if you’re traipsing or swimming through a river for hours) they stop talking, effectively blocking a channel to a solution and representing a major risk factor for the group. Our canyoning solution (probably Mic or Deacs’ idea) was to have regular checks on “how cold are you on a scale of one to ten?”. Once people dropped below 7, we’d start jumping around, try and exit the water and get people eating. If someone fell below 5, we’d begin sacrificing clothing to them. Below 3 and it was emergency time.

This 1-up, 1-down thing is a similar concept, but for the slightly more complicated world of your own moodiness. It’s a useful trick because when people get upset they also often stop talking. So this heuristic is a good start to use alone or with my partner (assuming I am honest with both her and myself!), but in this case there’s also a very tricky next step. How do I provide myself (or someone else) with the emotional equivalent of a thermal top? And, with others, how do I do so without coming across as patronizing, insensitive or overly intrusive?

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