Fear and Blame: Systems Thinking Primer

This weekend, my brother introduced me to a fascinating new NPR podcast, Throughline, that seeks to reframe current issues by illuminating their historical roots and connecting them to their impact on the systems in which we inhabit. The first episode I listened to was "The Litter Myth".


Throughline is a great podcast for those seeking to grow from trauma because it models an investigative mindset that is very useful when examining our current selves vis-a-vis our past trauma in order to understand what development possibilities exist for us to grow into. And "The Litter Myth" episode is relevant because it unpacks a common phenomenon that survivors of violence need to learn to deal with but in a different context. The episode unpacks how the producers of single-use packaging and products created advertising campaigns through many decades in order to transfer responsibility for creating and dealing with the increased waste onto consumers. So the phenomenon of shifting blame and culpability to those with less power and influence on the system or within the relationship (corporate producer to individual consumers or violent actor to those acted upon) can happen in many different contexts whenever a power asymmetry exists.


Relationships operate in the context of many different systems (familial, cultural, societal, class etc.). As I've written in previous posts, a dualistic, perpetrator-victim/powerful-powerless lens is not useful if we want to move beyond this destructive dynamic. This is akin to a situation stuck in what Nicky Case describes as an "attractor landscape" that reinforces outcomes we wish to avoid. Case teaches systems thinking through clever games and storytelling.


He explains the characteristics of an attractor landscape here with easy-to-understand visualizations. Essentially, an attractor is like a valley where change requires an expenditure of energy to get out of the valley, the deeper the valley the more energy needed. In Stewart Brand's summary of Nicky Case's brilliant "Seeing Whole Systems" talk at the Long Now Foundation, which I highly recommend watching, Brand summarizes Case's solution for getting out of the valley:

"Case’s solution is not to try to move the ball, MOVE THE HILLS — identify the balancing and reinforcing loops in the system and weaken or strengthen them as needed to reconfigure the whole system so that the desired condition becomes the dominant attractor."

In and following traumatic situations, fear is heightened and oftentimes persists beyond the existence of the threat, acting like an attractor landscape. Case shares his own personal journey to learning how to manage fear and recurrent panic attacks. A good friend shared a similar explanation, which helped me accept the emotions that were surfacing unexpectedly at the time; he even gave me a cute mascot as a reminder:

"It took me a decade to finally figure it out, but fear is a friend.
🐺 FEAR IS A GUARD DOG FOR YOUR NEEDS. 🐺
When it yaps “nobody likes us!” it's trying (however badly) to protect your need for belonging. When it yaps “we're bad people!” it's trying (very poorly) to protect your need for personal growth.
(The idea of a sub-agent in your mind isn't as wacky as it sounds – this thought's popped up independently in several fields: "System 1 and System 2" in behavioral economics, "The Elephant & The Rider" in social psychology, "The Society of Mind" in cognitive science, etc)
However, maybe you have a hyperactive dog that barks at shadows. It's not the dog's fault. Maybe in the past, it's been abused or neglected. But the dog genuinely wants to help you! That's its literal evolved function!
It yaps because it's a battered shelter dog, and it needs you to help it heal.
Sadly, many people's first response to the loud dog – including mine – was to lash out at it. But you can't beat the meanness out of a dog, or scare the fear out of it. (Note: this is also true for literal dog-training [pdf].)"

If you don't have time to read his entire post, here's Case's own TL;DR mental health tips:

9 Mental Health Habits for your software & hardware: Meditation, Journaling, Sleep, Exercise, Eat, Talk with friends, Make new friends, Learning, Practicing virtues.

I also love Case's Evolution of Trust game.


For anyone feeling stuck, whether in their own personal growth journey or with regards to external factors, I end with the most hopeful takeaway from Case's post on attractor landscapes:

"if you ever find yourself frustrated by the world, remember: for many systems, for long periods of time, nothing much changes.
Then, everything changes."

#systemsthinking #fear #anxiety #blame #trust #NickyCase #movethehills #mentalhealthhabits #seethewhole #seetheconnections #connectthedots

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