Have you ever had the most cliché story rise to the top as one of your favorite metaphors for life? That’s how I feel about the “Little Red Hen”. It’s origins go back to Russia. A folktale about personal responsibility. A moralistic tale that usually evokes associations to values such as the American “Protestant Work Ethic”. The Red Hen is a good worker indeed. I admire her. In fact over the years I’ve identified with hard work as a virtue and way of life. She came to mind as my unconscious mind made some connections that may not have as much to do with the quantity of our work as the qualities that we engage our work with. One of which is focus. Another is keeping our heart in our work despite the judgments from those who have become cynical, hopeless, and resentful. The fact is that we need collaborators to do inspired work and work that inspires. When it comes to navigating interpersonal relationships in this pursuit, Red has some deep insights about those of us who neglect our responsibilities and shirk the hard work of maintaining social bonds that bind us together around common goals.
If hard work were all it took to be successful in relationships then why is it so hard to stick together under stress? Is it possible that hard work could even be a problem in a relationship? Another character that has been on my mind in recent years is “Boxer” from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Like Red, Boxer worked hard and was highly regarded for his accomplishments on the farm. Then he was carted away to the glue factory under the guise of taking him to the veterinary hospital.
Yikes! What was going on there. Is personal responsibility a liability in a social environment that lacks collective responsibility? Boxer didn’t worry about the collective. He trusted the revolutionary pigs create policies that gave back to the community. Afterall, they were animals not humans! By the time he caught on he became the cornerstone of a new oppressive regime. As it turned out, the pigs weren’t working hard on looking out for the collective needs of the farm, they were hardly working. When they needed easy money Boxer’s declining health was their quick fix. Talk about kicking a horse when he’s down, a horse that perhaps worked the hardest for the herd. So, while it’s easy to blame each other for a lack of personal responsibility Social responsibility creates the climate that lets the bread rise.
Now, all morals, ethics, and religio-political considerations aside, I find these stories quiet relevant to everyday adaptive biopsychosocial functioning. In other words, to responsible and meaningful living. After working for a few decades with clients of all socioeconomic backgrounds, I have noticed that many of the disturbing memories that our brains need to process to restore personal responsibility (self-care) can be summed up with one word. Manipulation. Emotional manipulation gone sour. It happens to the best of us and there are many faces of it. If we keep in mind that not all emotional manipulation is malicious, then it’s easier to see the pervasiveness of the biopsychosocial dynamics behind it and create a climate within which it doesn’t spoil.
It is quite typical and characteristic of young children to use emotional manipulation to negotiate relationships. There are stages of development in early childhood when the child’s emotional experience is just as much about social communication as personal feelings. Our Affect System describes how we use emotions or what Silvan Tomkins called, affects, to communicate about what we are experiencing in relationship with others. Silvan was a playwright turned psychologist who developed “Affect Theory”. A powerful body of research and theory that has paved the way for the convergence of biological, psychological, and social perspectives on the salience that consciousness and our first person experience has in regard to living well. In particular, the fact that our conscious affective experience involves information processing of a very basic type.
Affects, anger, fear, shame, disgust, surprise, joy, interest, startle, and distress, are integrative. They help bring together information about the body and it’s interactions with the outside world. We are wired to experience them and to feel complementary affects when others express or broadcast them. For instance, when you express your anger toward a friend they are likely to feel innate shame on the receiving end. The anger says, “I have a problem with you!”, while the shame says, “Everything was going great, I wonder why there is a problem?”.
If you saw the 2015 Disney/Pixar film “Inside Out”, that was Paul Ekman doing the consulting on emotions. Paul was one of Silvan’s students who has contributed immensely to the world of emotion research. Paul traveled the globe capturing photographs of people of different cultures expressing emotion to validate 9 universal affects. We all share some evolutionary heritage that predisposes us to know we are in certain situations with others and we can trust that there is something true being expressed when these innate emotional circuits are triggered.
So, back to manipulation. I’d like to retrieve this word from the bin of pejorative words we use everyday and bring it out into the light where we can dust it off. Many of us remember learning how to do mathematical calculations in elementary school. It’s likely the teacher used blocks, coins, paper money, marbles and other “manipulatives” to help us learn how to “get the right answer”. We could say to, “get the desired outcome”. We skillfully influence things to get them to turn out a certain way.
One of tasks of parenting is to socialize children around how to skillfully use their emotions to influence the behavior of others. How to communicate what is going on with you involves expressing emotion. The absence, presence and intensity of emotion all matter, as well as the particular emotion that is being broadcast. What we communicate on our face in particular has a lot to do with organizing of our relationships with others. The easiest way to spot how linked emotion and information processing is, is to consider how little we express on our face in many public settings where we don’t want to give away how we feel. Like playing poker and “keeping your cards close.”
Using our expression of emotion to influence others is hardly a problem. It’s an important part of any collaborative endeavor. And let’s face it, most of life is a collaborative endeavor. This is where Little Red’s chicks come in. Now, in the original story there is no mention of the chicks. However, I came across the photo above and have come to incorporate the chicks into my version of the story. Let’s call my version The Little Red Hen and Interpersonal Integration. Red is teaching her chicks how to collaborate. How to set your sights on the goal of living (making bread) and stay focused, while others attempt to manipulate you! The way I see it, Red is focused on life and looking for collaborators, like her chicks, to help reach goals for living. The outcome of this promotes more life. The bread will give the farm animals energy they need to do what needs to be done around the farm.
My favorite example of this spirit of living is captured brilliantly by writer Stephen Moffat’s character Doctor Who. The Doctor is always looking for what he calls a “mate”. “No not like that, a mate!” More like a first mate, a buddy, a co-adventurer that is willing to take risks and live a little. He finds mates like “Rose Tyler” pictured above who want to confront life authentically, without hiding from the troubles they find. They look wide eyed and outward at the range of experiences they have. Together.
Like the animals working to make the windmill in Animal Farm they see ways to make the universe a better place. Whether they do are not is always uncertain. What is certain, is the bond they strengthen by having that goal. Now if you know your Animal Farm you know that once Napoleon the pig ran his competitor off the farm in search of his own glory, the revolutionary spirit turned sour. Mates became a means to an end not soul mates. The process of building that windmill to sustain the farm included corruption and pseudo-bonds made with partners equally vulnerable to betrayal. So what gives? How do the bonds that hold us together born out of making our way in life erode? How do we being with the best intentions in mind and fall prey to corruption? Is it all maliciousness?
Let’s leave moral thinking and socio-political perspectives at the door when we look at these questions so we don’t get distracted. Are there deep biological roots to these experiences we read and write about? Can a collapse in adaptive information processing matter? I think Red and her chicks have some answers. While involving her chicks in her way of life, Red also teaches them how to set boundaries with the outside world that help her keep her “eyes on the prize” of making good bread for all to share. Enter the dog and the duck. Two typical obstacles to interpersonal integration, narcissism and pseudo-narcissism.
What is the dog’s response to helping with the project? “Sorry Red, I’m looking pretty swag right now lounging in the sun and baking is for losers. Besides mills are dangerous places I might get injured and not be able to impress everyone with my dog tricks. Know what I mean babe?” You may know about him already.
The duck might be less easy to spot. The duck says, “What! Me? Help! Sure you think you and your bread are so special. Of course you make good bread, you were given all the privilege of the cherished farm animal. Red feathers, plentiful eggs, and a history of being the farmer’s favorite animal. You don’t look anything like me, you must be working for the dog. See why I can’t do anything to help, it’s me against the world. You’ve got some nerve!”
Well, Red goes about her business planting, harvesting, and milling the wheat. She makes offers to the animals and they decline. On to making the dough, kneading the bread, and baking it, more offers, more static. The day the bread is rising in the ovens, everyone comes round. It smells wonderful. Made with love and in collaboration with her chicks every step of the way. You know the rest of the story. The animals all want some bread. Those who helped get some, but the dog and duck are sent away. What? How unkind! What is she doing?
Red flushes out manipulation gone sour and gives the dog and duck some good advice. She tells them they are welcome to participate in making the bread in the future. However, their expectation that she give them “something for nothing” is destined to erode the bond they may be on the verge of establishing. She offers them “something for something”. In other words, giving them bread is a type of nothing. How about a collaborative relationship with that bread? Is there anything else? Will the bread keep coming without sharing the life force behind it?
Red tells them, “You clearly are not here for bread. If you were you would realize that it comes from working together. My chicks know this and they are not yet old enough to care for themselves. You are old enough to care for yourself and yet you are making choices not to. When you choose not to do what even my chicks can, you reveal that you are not here for bread. Taking from me without giving in return is less about manipulating me than continuing to let yourself down. I’ll have no part in that. My chicks do what they can. Some can carry wheat, some knead the dough, and others sing me songs or just walk by my side. You can do the same, but you choose to sun yourself dog and you choose to complain duck and there is an alternative…”
Manipulation goes sour when we get caught up in abdicating personal responsibility in favor of short sighted solutions to solving problems and achieving goals that are a part of protecting ourselves from the inner stress evoked by collaboration. When we set boundaries like Red it helps us process information about what’s going on. Here’s what may happen within our mind’s eye that gets in the way of biopsychosocial information processing leaving us vulnerable to oppression in environments not organized around helping us be responsible. Meet “Chicken Little!”
If you recall this one, Little is afraid the sky is falling. Vulnerable to what psychologists call “confirmation bias”. The process of being influenced by an inner belief about the world that may or may not be valid. Our attention becomes selective to focusing on things that confirm the belief while ignoring contrary evidence. This is strengthened by beliefs that evoke strong emotions.
I believe negative beliefs about ourselves, that we aren’t worth, don’t deserve, don’t know how, and/or can’t engage in collaborative relationships contribute to living like the dog and the duck. Whether we have a personality disorder or not, we can all fall prey to defenses like the dog and the duck. My twist on the Chicken Little story is that Little is experiencing toxic shame and panic. Being left out, forgotten, outright pushed aside by others one too many times or one time too intensely can leave us afraid of shame and panic. If you have ever felt left out of life and like it’s your fault and nothing can be done about it, it really is like the sky is falling.
So, Little runs to Henny Penny, Turkey Lurkey, Ducky Lucky, and Loosey Goosey expressing intense emotion that the sky is falling. The next thing you know they are now a small mob motivated by this fear of abandonment/death. Who should they run into? Well of course the fox! Waiting there taking it all in with a business plan of his own. The fox validates Chicken Little’s fears and convinces them that he has a cave where they will be safe from the falling sky. Wink, wink! No one comes out of that cave alive of course.
If we nest these stories together and imagine the dog and duck have a “Chicken Little” story of their own going on inside, we see coping that’s more chaotic, driven by anger and anxiety (dog) or rigid defenses driven by absence (duck). This is the way unprocessed memory related to problems with interpersonal bonding, “come home to roost”. They can lead us to make friends with foxes and run away from those of us offering bread. The connected response that Red offers is likely to bring up their Chicken Little stories as they try to make sense of her boundary setting. If they stay connected with her they will have to confront their inner foxes and come to see that Red is no threat and there is hope in quieting down their brain/body and mind enough to see the opportunity she is offering.
The dog and the duck can learn new tricks but they need to approach life like a chick. Chicks know what is wholesome and good for the long haul. They waste no time chasing the fantasy that they are master of the universe nor a lowly worm unable to rise up. They get up early and do what they can. When it comes time to relax and enjoy something good they celebrate and enjoy. Joy springs up in their hearts everyday because there is joy in living. It doesn’t need to be manufactured, bought, or sold and it can’t be captured by hard work alone!
“I don’t want to bring a sour note
Remember this before you vote
We can all sink or we all float
‘Cause we’re all in the same big boat”