Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dear Mrs Sympathy, Positive Feedback & Negative Outcomes:


Dear Mrs Sympathy & Positive Feedback, the lecture title said.

‘The trouble with Mrs sympathy and her positive feedback is the maintenance of negative outcomes,’ was the opening pitch from our esteemed lecturer.

‘Positive feedback with a negative outcome? - How the smeg does that work?’ Said one wag in his best Dave Lister impersonation. “How should I know,” flashed through my mind in the voice of Red Dwarf’s, dead pan, super computer.

It was an early class in the counseling degree I was undertaking and the pitch was aimed, perhaps more at all the women in class than me and the only other guy, ‘its what can happen when we rush to soon to rescue,’ had been the teachers next remark.

We went on to discuss the problem of cutting off the expression of negative emotions in a client by soothing their pain too soon, the positive sympathy has a way of reinforcing the negative state we are experiencing by rewarding it, telling the unconscious that a good way to attract affection from another is through negative emotional expression.

In the role plays that followed, we each got to feel the temptation to sooth the pain of another and ask ourselves, ‘am I soothing the other person or soothing myself?’ Feeling another’s deep emotional pain is decidedly discomforting.

Holding still in your chair while a person is breaking down in front of you, challenges the delicate task of helping a client explore the nature of their emotional pain, how long to remain silent and allow a deeper self exploration. It was a lecture that resonated with the task of the telephone crisis lines, where operators learn how to listen in silence and let the person talk.

‘Its my mothering instinct, I can’t help it,’ said one of the girls during a particularly challenging role play.

‘Its counter intuitive in a way, such well intentioned sympathy can help maintain a negative pattern,’ observed another lady.

In notions of biofeedback it is suggested that tense muscles send positive feedback to the brain leading to a negative outcome, in a self perpetuating feedback loop. Food for thought?