8 Keys to Gritty Self-Governance

In this world, emotion has become suspect—the accepted style is smooth, antiseptic and passionless. —Joe Biden

Strong government doesn't mean simply military power or an efficient intelligence apparatus. Instead, it should mean effective, fair administration—in other words, "good governance." —Raghuram Rajan

The governor is the part of a steam engine which makes sure that the right amount of fuel is being fed to fuel the fire. How does it work? Engines typically make a shaft rotate, and that shaft is attached to something it powers, such as the wheels of a train or the machines in an old-time factory. At the top of the shaft sits the governor.

brewbooks from near Seattle, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia CommonsSteam Engine Centrifugal Governor Source: brewbooks from near Seattle, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It's a simple idea, elegant. Picture two small spheres opposite one another, spinning like a carnival ride with two riders. The faster they go, the higher they rise on their hinged rods because of centrifugal force. The governor is attached to the fuel supply by another set of rods, or a wire, in such a way that they pull on a valve or switch. As they go higher, they close the valve and there is less fuel, and they slow down. As they slow down, the valve opens and they speed up. They stay within a fixed range because of this feedback mechanism, which can be tuned by changing how tightly they are connected to the valve.

The idea of self-governance also conjures up a sense of authority. Having authority over oneself, standing in good relation to oneself, taking one's counsel, and so on. Being self-possessed without being authoritarian. Having this balance requires a good state of affairs among many different aspects of oneself, including emotions, body, intellect, self-regard, and relationship with others. Thinking about self-governance, 8 key ingredients come to mind for me, in an intuitive order: Self-awareness, planfulness, psychological mindedness, self-appraisal, emotional continence, esteem regulation, self-relationship, and playfulness:

"If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?" - Milton Berle

1. Self-awareness. This includes all aspects of how one attends to oneself. The way perception is directed, the extent to which one’s self-awareness is expansive and inclusive of all aspects of sensation and experience, and to some reflective function—the recursive ability of the mind—are all relevant concepts related to self-awareness. Self-awareness is of basic importance because it is part of the foundation of consciousness.

Self-awareness necessarily includes awareness of the boundaries between consciousness and unawareness, as well as some attention to changes at the margins and of how things spring into being internally. The inner act of creation draws attention to itself, only sometimes. Self-governing individuals have a good grasp on how self-awareness works, how to use it, and the pitfalls and empowerment of it. Playfulness is critical for self-awareness to properly function, in my opinion, necessary but not sufficient. In witnessing oneself, for example in internal dialogue, we create another, and another, and another.

2. Planfulness. Is "planfulness" even a word? Regardless, as I see it, long-term thinking remains highly underrated. To humorously misquote, "there id was shall ego be." It’s hard to fully leverage the capacity of the human mind, especially together in groups because that requires very clear communication and consensus, in thinking through alternatives in detail. We think of risk and reward. One one side of the path, the risk doesn’t pay off, and we tumble. On the other side of the path, the reward is less than anticipated. At the same time, there is another way when the risk pays off, and the risk and reward end up being on the same side. You don’t know until you are there.

Can we really recommend that every contingency in life be simulated in advance, every scenario played out? That we learn fully from every dream and fantasy? There is a law of diminishing returns, and action is required. Getting better at planning leaves room for accuracy and spontaneity. People learn from experience, including how to direct attention and place intention, making better choices with mental resources.

3. Psychological mindedness. I want to put self-reflective function here, as well as mentalization, the capacity to understand and symbolize the inner mental states of oneself and others. We vary in how much we can look at ourselves. That can be trained-up with practice but may have a personality-driven ceiling. Some people seem born uber self-reflective, others not so much—and over-thinking to a neurotic extent isn't helpful, either. To each their own. In any case, psychological capacity beyond self-reflection refers to a broad set of functions—the ability to have the idea that we all have minds, that we are all subjective centers of experience—that we all contain a whole entire world.

We live in these worlds of our own, and they interlace and overlap with one another in an imperfectly shared social reality. There’s a lot going on, in me and in you. Everyone has this internal process. And beyond that a theory of mind, your own psychological and emotional model of what makes people tick. Because we have to make guesses about motivation and assess people around us. Living in a world with experiencing subjects is very different from living in one with soulless automata. It's weird to think that there are 7+ billion different worlds in our world, not counting sentient non-humans.

4. Self-appraisal. I don’t know about you, but self-criticism and self-blame are a major drag. Even if there is accurate and putatively useful information contained in some of these lancinating thoughts, the packing of negative feelings directed at oneself is not good branding. One of the issues is that candid self-appraisal isn’t easy. It does get better with practice, but the emotional work of frank self-appraisal comes more easily to some than others. Especially if your goal is to appraise with feeling, rather than with too much detachment. Numb self-appraisal can be helpful at times but is as distorted in its own way as emotional appraisal. Self-appraisal is an art, as much as a science, and as such can be quite beautiful, one of the peaks of human inspiration.

5. Emotional continence. Incontinence is when we can’t control the boundary between inside and outside. What is inside leaks or gushes out, and what is outside gets covered in emotions. What’s outside can also get inside, though that is less common. When the outside gets covered in emotions, we tend to see ourselves in what is outside more easily and less accurately. Projection. We may also feel robbed of ourselves, I find. Not to be too staunch, emotional continence also means having more executive control, knowing when, where, how and why to let it go. Not to a perfectionistic extent, not to cheat us out of all vitality, but as a form of affect regulation based on early bodily experience.

Encourage daddy time. The greatest untapped resource available for improving the lives of our children is time with Dad - early and often. Kids with engaged fathers do better in school, problem-solve more successfully, and generally cope better with whatever life throws at them.

Our brains use spatial metaphors for emotions and relationships, and we learn how to control the world early on via our own bodies. Our earliest experiences are physical and sensory, that is what shapes our mental apparatus along with how others respond to our inchoate needs and feeble efforts to communicate. We take people in, we push ideas away, we want to get rid of thoughts and other things. Feelings and raw experience is so powerful, and learning how to wield, embrace, that potential means being able to hold reasonably steady, and re-orient when blown off course.

6. Esteem regulation. Being able to monitor and re-enforce one’s sense of self in anticipation of and though challenges is really useful. It’s like having a power station and diverting electricity into the grid when you see that the current is heading into a lull, shifting power to the wheels that grip. Getting traction with reality requires having a sense of self to bite into it. Being able to keep self-esteem up when facing challenges, including difficult information about oneself from other people as well as self-appraisal, means being resilient through whatever changes that new information may catalyze.

It does not mean being brittle and unaffected by events around us, though that can be a useful substitute when flexible resilience is not readily available. At the core of esteem regulation is cultivating a sense of self-efficacy. We have to believe we can do what we need to do. For this, success can be important of course, but where we direct our attention is also crucial. This is very tricky, because people who aren’t feeling good about themselves don’t feel much self-efficacy, and have trouble seeing how to even notice evidence of self-efficacy, and tend to discount what there may be. It takes faith in oneself, and isn’t always a choice. A great way to bring up self-esteem and self-efficacy is to get others to provide support and encouragement in those areas.

7. Self-relationship. This is an important concept, though a little bit strange to some. Self-compassion and love for oneself, at least the ideal of those things, comes into play because there is a way where we are both self and other to oneself. When we attend, or tend, to ourselves, we can see this in a fanciful sense as if we were one person taking care of another person. Ultimate we are just one person, but we can step into a care-giving role in relation to oneself. Self-talk is a good illustration of this, where we are hearing a thought as if it were another person, or even talking out loud. That makes it easy because we can behave with ourselves as if we were another person. And when we hear our own thoughts about ourselves we can also feel like we are on the receiving end.

If it is self-critical, we can have many responses—fighting back, feeling hurt, ignoring and trying to suppress, counter-arguing, listening, self-compassion, and so on. How we relate to ourselves basically determines what happens next. Incremental changes in self-relationship build up over time. This is one of the reasons long-term planning is important, though it does mean shifting what we find rewarding in the short-run as well, because it helps to enjoy each little decision, and be curious about each little slip. Generally, I think of it as being something like a really good friend to oneself, even falling in love with oneself (in a healthy non-pathologically narcissistic way, of course).

8. Playfulness. Being able to have fun with oneself, while also maintaining a serious and respectful stance when appropriate, without losing self-possession—and especially not ridiculing oneself or laughing at one’s own expense—is a defining ingredient. It can be kind of hard to master, if even possible. Play means learning, plasticity, meta-plasticity, curiosity, and it also means that aggression is generally pretend. Now, pretend aggression can cause real hurt, as we know from teasing, but play is only play when it is consensual.

Inherent in play is experimentation, testing reality and ourselves, seeing what happens, and making use of that info. Cultivating an experimental attitude both with creative spontaneity as well as rigorous scientific inquiry is important. Because we have to pay attention to what we learn from play, in order to learn from it, make sense of it, see patterns, and so on. Learning ought to be fun, I suppose.

Debra Messing (mom of son Roman): “The priority shift is a relief. There are so many things that used to monopolize my time and my energy that I realize now, in the face of being a mother, are just completely irrelevant.”

Humor about oneself is likewise tricky, but can be powerful tool for compassion. Humor can be healing by providing gentle perspective on oneself. The right kind of laughter, especially shared but sometimes only shared with oneself, can be like a good cry in releasing burdens of shame and guilt, precipitating bits of self-forgiveness. Humor and play are also, of course, entertaining. If you can keep yourself good company, being alone is less likely to turn to loneliness. Play is strong medicine, and as such must be carefully dispensed.

There are many different ways to contemplate self-governance. I see it as a daily practice which pays dividends over time. Self-governance above all requires developing balance in many different capacities coupled with responsiveness to oneself and others. There doesn't seem to be a magic pill, but over time incremental efforts, tiny little changes, snowball and sometimes without even realizing it, we realize things have changed for the better right under our noses.