Cooperative spherical cows

Cooperative spherical cow philosophies postulate a certain model of human behaviour and give advice on how to fix your relationships. Unfortunately, whether the advice works is conditional on all humans adhering to the ideal model, which they don't.

All cooperative spherical cow philosophies have a hidden precondition which makes them applicable in the real world. If it is mentioned in a book at all, it will be as an off-hand remark or digression, accepted at face value and not explored in depth. You can tell it's a hidden precondition because it makes the philosophy no longer look like a silver bullet.

Here are the four cooperative spherical cow philosophies I have so far encountered:

Cooperative spherical cows or the highway

Skipping to the chase, the argument usually goes like so:

Everyone wants to get along. We antagonise each other because we don't understand this, and we don't know how to communicate our needs. If you follow $PROCESS to communicate in a gentle and vulnerable way, other people will empathise with you, and this will motivate them to willingly cooperate and compromise in solving $PROBLEM. As a result, we will all live in equality and harmony, without attempting to dominate each other.

Every teacher eventually admits that sometimes people don't want to get along. We get to choose between accepting their decision and its consequences on our well‑being with equanimity, without holding a grudge, or breaking the relationship and fucking off. No third option exists by design, because convincing, negotiation, manipulation, guilt-tripping, punishment, reward, or threat is postulated as the thing that incites hostility and power struggles.

Little space is given to "...and if you can't deal, walk". Nobody explicitly discusses what to do if you can't, apart from hinting that you're gonna be less miserable if you accept your lot in life and find joy in being of service.

On the other hand, these philosophies (Adlerian and Buddhism especially) also give you permission to not give a shit about how others feel about your actions, which is what I think so many people find freeing. More on this later.

Why this approach doesn't work

One, empathy, emotional control, being able to recognise and name your emotions, being able to identify their triggers, conflict resolution skills - these are all skills and not everyone has learned them.

Two, people who did learn these skills can choose not to use them. Both strangers and people you have deep relationships with will sometimes push your boundaries for fun, or for profit. Watch a child for a demonstration.

Having no way to deal with it other than going with it or walking away is fucking insanity. It gives you no skills to negotiate with people whose interests do not wholly align with your own (behold: everyone in your workplace. Also, everyone you'd like to hire.)

Three, deep relationships necessarily come with a deep interdependency of well‑being, which means that Adlerian "tasks" are not as independent as advertised. Other people will bear consequences of your behaviour, often unwillingly (this is why your parents' advice is always more conservative than your friends: because when the push comes to shove, they will be socially and morally obliged to pay for you.)

Not one of these philosophies discusses what to do when people close to you keep your well‑being hostage, other than bear it gracefully or lose the relationship.

Four, they also don't discuss the fact that sometimes you cannot afford to walk away, or express your feelings, because we do actually live in a social hierarchy. In NVC, Marshall Rosenberg talks with pride about how his daughter said "fuck off" to a teacher. I have a feeling he'd be less happy if it got her kicked out of school.

Hidden preconditions: tarnishing silver bullets

One hidden precondition is that these approaches works with a selected audience. You're meant to self-isolate and break off relationships that do not sparkle.

  • Buddhism: you're expected to eventually become ordained and live in intentional communities
  • Brené Brown: cautions to only be vulnerable with a person who you know will reliably and non-judgementally accept you, and has done so before. (Brene has her sister.)
  • Adlerian: associate with people who are pro-social (they will feel guilt and pick up the slack if they see you doing too much, as Youth demonstrated.) Self-isolate from competitive environments because they are triggering (which the Philosopher admits to having done.)

Buddhism is actually brutally honest about it and once you get deep enough the teachers will admit that, noperino, it doesn't work outside of intentional communities so the whole mental health sell is happy bullshit.

Adlerian psychology just says "you chose your problem", and, I guess, choosing a job where you have a boss and you compete against co-workers so as not to get fired, is totally on you. That not everyone can make a different choice because of, say, class and family responsibilities, seems to be out of scope.

The other hidden precondition is that you need to have learned the skills to deal with non-cooperative people pushing your boundaries before becoming a cooperative spherical cow. Your other option is to be born or become a person whom others are reluctant to antagonise because of your money, power, or prestige.

  • Brené Brown: admits that she learned great social mimicry skills and became popular in her local social circles before investigating shame and vulnerability
  • Adlerian: advises tone policing (no, really, find the anecdote about an unappreciated housewife doing the dishes)

Can we do better? 👏 YES 👏 WE 👏 CAN

Further reading:

When I Say No, I Feel Guilty by Manuel J. Smith for building what Ichiro Kishimi calls horizontal relationships, except Smith actually gives you verbal skills to judo people who try to "verticalise" (dominate) you, and not get overwhelmed with emotions in the process. Kishimi tells you that if you can't do it, it's because you don't want to do it, and leaves it at that. Thanks.

Games People Play by Eric Berne for a specific description of "games" (sequences of moves with which people manoeuvre for status and power) and neutralising counter-moves. Comes with a health warning that, unlike Kishimi claims, if you neutralise someone's power play they sometimes will want to fuck you up in revenge (in description of "Schlemiel" game, I think.)

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman explains that you don't sometimes choose your emotions (amygdala hijack), and, again, which skills you need to deal with that.

In Unless You're Oprah, 'Be Yourself' Is Terrible Advice, Adam Grant explains that people who keep a lid on it and watch their reputation have greater success in life; and while women may have a cultural permission to be publicly vulnerable about their emotions, it's a trap, because they're still punished for it.

Lastly, Jennifer Beer exposes The Inconvenient Truth about Your 'Authentic' Self and finds out that people feel more "authentic" when they conform to social conventions about how a person is meant to behave, rather than when they conform to their own values. Virtue is its own reward, if you allow society to define virtue for you.

Categories: relationships · communication · mental health · social hierarchy