We’ve all heard of ‘spin doctors’ and ‘spin-doctoring’. Nowadays it is common (if not downright obligatory) for a person in a prominent public position to engage the services of a so-called ‘spin doctor’ to present (if needs be) their actions in a way that sounds better than it really is. For example, suppose that I am the President of the United States of America and by some fluke I make a totally stupid comment that gets reported in all the papers. If they are any good at all, my spin doctors will be able to smudge the whole issue so that I don’t come off too badly – they might put it about that I was misquoted, that my comments were taken out of context, that it wasn’t really what it sounded like. They might even infer that there is some kind of anti-American conspiracy going on, which I am the victim of! If my spin-doctors are really good, I might even come out of this incident looking like a hero! The basic rule of spin-doctoring is therefore to cover the issue in question with red-herrings and misinformation, and if possible switch the blame to somebody else, so that in the end Joe Punter (the famous man in the street) gets the wool pulled firmly over his eyes.
This sort of business goes on all the time, as we all know, and it doesn’t come of much of a surprise to learn about it. What is possibly more surprising, however, is the idea that we each have our own personal spin-doctor inside our heads. This internal spin-doctor works away more or less constantly, without us ever realizing it. So – supposing that we accept this idea for the time being – what exactly does the internal spin-doctor do, and why do we need it? Well, the internal spin-doctor exists for exactly the same reason as the more familiar ‘external’ variety – to create some sort of deception, to cover up a truth that we do not want to be seen, to switch the blame for what’s gone wrong onto someone (or something) else.
Just as in the example given above, we can say that the function of the internal spin-doctor is to ‘preserve the integrity of the image’, only in this case it is the self-image that is being preserved. The self-image is how we see ourselves and it corresponds pretty much with how we would like to see ourselves. If anything happened to disturb this pretty picture, and thereby cause me to see myself in an unflattering light, then that would of course cause me to feel bad, and so for this reason I have to have some means of protecting myself against such unpleasant insights. The way we do this is to ‘edit’ reality so that stuff we don’t want to see doesn’t get past the censor. Naturally, in order for this to work we have to be completely ignorant of what is going on, and so the editing of reality has to be ‘sneaky’ (i.e. unconscious). This is obvious enough.
THOUGHTS AS ‘DISTANCE’
In the most general sense, the function of the internal spin-doctor is to save us from mental pain or discomfort. Avoiding discomfort is the motivation behind it all, and so what we are basically talking about is a form of ‘unacknowledged mental avoidance’ of any painful or challenging issue that comes up. We do this is by conceptually processing what has happened (or is happening) in such a way as to give it a more agreeable or palatable slant to it. Essentially, we think about things in way that makes us feel better – we evaluate, interpret, comment upon what has happened in a way that makes us feel better in some way. The most basic form this takes is for me to think familiar thoughts such as: “That is crap…” or “This stinks” or “Screw this” or “This shouldn’t be happening to me…” or “I wish I were somewhere else…” or “It’s all so-and-so’s fault that I am having to put up with this…”
These ‘evaluations’ or ‘appraisals’ of my situation make me feel momentarily better, they comfort me in exactly the same way that self-pity (for example) comforts me. This type of self-comforting thought (which is of course more commonly known as ‘complaining’ or ‘bitching’!) is a simple example of the sort of thing we are talking about, but there are of course many other diverse and subtle other ways we have of describing our situation to ourselves that make us feel better.
It might seem strange to say that when I evaluate (i.e. label) my situation as being “crap” this makes me feel better, but if we take the time to reflect for a moment we can see that there is some sort of hidden implication in this label that comforts me a bit. If I say “This is crap” about something it implies that I have been short-changed, that I deserve something better. It implies that I should have been getting a better deal and the validation of myself as having been unfairly treated makes me feel momentarily better. Accountability (or responsibility) has been shifted.
If I say “This is all your fault” this too makes me feel better because blaming you takes the pain away for a brief moment. If I say “This is awful” this too makes me feel better – strangely enough – because I have the satisfaction of being able to label it as such. If I label the situation then I distance myself from it in some way. When I evaluate what is going on I remove myself from it – I put it in a conceptual box, shut the lid, and then make sure that I never open it again. By doing this is somehow feel better – in a subtle but significant way. I still feel bad, but I feel bad in a more secure way!
I feel better because I have provided myself with the fundamental comfort of possessing a description of what is going on. This is always a comfort – at least to start off with – because knowing what is happening (even if I know it to be ‘bad’) is a subtle way of being ‘one up’ on the situation. Now if we were able to get away with avoiding the odd bit of mental discomfort in this way then perhaps there would be no harm in it – we would hardly blame anyone for trying to blunt a few of life’s sharp edges. But there is a serious problem with spin-doctoring that we do not immediately see, but which comes into play further down the line. This problem can be understood in terms of ‘spin-reversal’. A spin, as we have repeatedly said, is a way of looking at things that makes us feel good (or less bad, which is the same thing). It is, so to speak, how we milk a situation to get a ‘plus’ out of it that isn’t really there; it is like a bent accountant massaging the figures!
To explain it another way, putting a spin on a situation is like pushing a child on a swing away from us – when the child is swinging away from us, that is the positive phase of the spin. However, as we all know, there is no such thing as a positive swing-phase without its ‘complement’, which is the negative swing-phase. In other words, ‘what goes up must come down’. In exactly the same way, when I put a positive spin on things that positive spin can only last so long, and then it inevitably turns around on me and rebounds as a negative spin. There may well be a ‘delay factor’ if I am actively maintaining the spin, but the time will come when it all comes back in my face, like an elastic band snapping painfully back. The ‘delay factor’ is only a temporary postponement of this back-lash.
This is obvious once we think about it and it also accords with experience: an artificially maintained good mood will inevitably collapse into a bad mood, just like false optimism inevitably turns into despair. As cybernetics pioneer Gregory Bateson said YES equals NO because when we push an elastic system in a PLUS direction we automatically create its opposite. In the same way, when I say “Everything is going to okay…” (which is a positive spin we instantaneously create, by inference, the negative complement of this statement, which is the thought that “Everything is not going to be okay”. This idea is not so familiar in our culture, but in ancient Chinese philosophy it is well known as the principle of the ‘complementarity of the opposites’ which is expressed in the form of the ‘yin-yang’ symbol. What this symbol means in a nutshell is that YES and NO are two indivisible aspects of the very same thing – there is no way on earth that we can have the positive without also having the negative. YES and NO are the two ends of the same stick, and if we grab hold of the stick we are going to make ourselves subject to both opposites.
THE PLUS/MINUS CYCLE
What we are saying, then, is that the capacity which a positive spin has to make us feel better about things only lasts so long until it is exactly reversed and we find ourselves at the opposite end of the swing. What happens then of course is that a cycle sets up which goes up-down, up-down, up-down indefinitely. Once a disturbance has been produced, the resultant oscillation (or vibration) will not go away by itself, because in order for it to cease we have to be willing to face ‘the truth’, and that is of course the one thing we don’t want to do. After all it was because the truth, when taken ‘neat’ (or ‘undiluted’), was too disagreeable to us, that we started slanting the story in the first place. The actual truth of the situation is something I never see because I am always passing it by on my way up or on my way down. As to what this ‘truth’ is, all we can say is that the truth of a situation is (obviously enough) how things were before we started slanting the story to suit us better. The truth is the axis about which we are oscillating in an endless +/- cycle; it is the position of ‘no distortion’, or ‘zero bias’. It’s the thing we never see.
We said that there we have a variable capacity to stay in the positive-swing phase. The length of time we can stay in the positive swing-phase varies tremendously – in some cases we may enjoy a euphoric ride that lasts weeks or months or even longer; in other cases, when this capacity is reduced, it may only last for a second or two. The rule in all cases is very simple: the amount of time spent enjoying the so-called ‘benefits’ of a positive spin equals the amount of time spent in a disagreeable ‘negative spin state’. Both are unrealistic distortions of reality, but once we buy into the ‘agreeable distortion’ of a positive spin then we have no choice but to endure the pain or discomfort of the disagreeable distortion that comes with it.
ANXIETY AND LOW SELF-ESTEEM
We can give two examples to try to make this a bit clearer. Suppose that I choose to look at things in a kind of over-simplified way so that I can ‘dream away’ contentedly that ‘everything is going to work out just the way I want it to’. Perhaps I am sitting in the pub with a few friends, enjoying a drink and ‘sorting out life’. I know what I am going to do in order to realise my goals – it is all quite simple really and I so sit back and congratulate myself. Now the only reason I get to feel good is because I have ignored all the potential snags, and so I am on a ‘false high’. Therefore, because of the rule that ‘what goes up must come down’, the amount of time I spent in a positively distorted world where the snags have been under-emphasised must be made up by an equal amount of time spent in negatively distorted world where the snags are over-emphasised! Instead of seeing no insurmountable problems, and feeling confident that I will succeed, the exact opposite becomes true – life becomes [or so it seems to me] full of insurmountable problems and the only confidence I have is my confidence in my ability to fail!
The other example we can give is the example where I look at things in such a way as to minimise any awareness of my personal failings, whatever they might be. Instead of looking at the things about me that aren’t so great, I concentrate on the ‘plus’ side of things and so I get to feel like a good or successful person. This is very normal behaviour – we all tend to ‘ignore the downside’ to some extent or another, and as a result we create what Carl Jung calls the shadow, which is the repressed ‘dark side’ of our nature. The rule of reversal means that I have set myself up to experience the opposite of the positively distorted state, and that is when I start to see myself in a negatively distorted way. This negative phase is usually known as ‘low self-esteem’. What we don’t usually see is that low self-esteem is only part of a cycle, a cycle that is set in motion by our unacknowledged need to be ‘in control’ of how we see ourselves. A common ‘complication’ of this cycle is where we have low self-esteem because something else has been systematically undermining and devalidating us, and in this case we can say that our ‘low self-esteem’ is the result of someone else’s need to be in control of how they see themselves, since our abuser is inevitably ‘putting us down’ in order to feel more powerful themselves. This is a direct relationship – they feel better about themselves because we feel worse.
YOU CAN’T CURE SPIN WITH SPIN
Of course, it goes practically without saying that if we reacted to an uncomfortable reality by putting a spin on it to make it more acceptable to us, then when this spin goes negative on us we are going to react by trying to ‘put a spin on our spin’. This is after all an inbuilt habit for all of us – when we encounter something that makes us feel uncomfortable we put a spin on it. The next stage, needless to say, is that when this spin starts to fail us and ‘goes negative’, then we have to put a spin on the spin that we put on the original spin.
Now it has to be said that we do not at any time realise that this is what is going on. The whole idea of ‘spin reversal’ is completely unknown to us – we haven’t been educated in it. But because this is the way that things work, what happens is that we end up being hopelessly buried beneath level upon level of self-deception like the layers of skin on an onion. We are lost behind innumerable ‘neurotic veils’ and as a result the problems we are trying to fix bear no real relation to what is going on. Each time we try to ‘fix the problem’ all we do is create another red herring, another layer of self-deception. The reason for this is because when we define ‘what the problem is’, we are choosing to define the problem in a way that suits us – defining the problem means choosing what way to see or interpret the world, and this equals ‘creating a spin’.
SEEING THE SPIN
Putting a spin on things means ‘seeing reality on my own terms’. We might equally well say that a spin means ‘accepting reality only on my terms’, and so what we are talking about here is conditional acceptance, which means that I am staying firmly in control of what I see (or accept as being true). Basically, I see what I want to see and I accept what I want to accept, and this is what spin-doctoring is all about. This, as we have said, seems to work okay at first, but it creates terrible problems further on down the road. Spin-doctoring is really the same thing as ‘self-deception’ (i.e. telling a comforting lie to yourself), and this is obviously cannot be advantageous in the long run.
If conditional acceptance is the problem, then the cure must be unconditional acceptance. Therefore, we can say that the way out of the endlessly complicated and convoluted mess that self-deception creates for us is to accept unconditionally, which means ‘seeing reality as it really is’. The neat thing about this ‘cure’ is that we don’t have to do anything special or use any fancy methods – we just see things as they actually are, we ‘drop our biased interpretations’. Seeing is when we drop all methods and all approaches, because a method or approach always takes something for granted about the thing that is going to be obtained as a result of using the method (or ‘angle’), and the whole point about ‘seeing’ is that we do not know what we are going to obtain, or receive, as a result of seeing.
THE PATH OF DISAPPOINTMENT
What ‘seeing’ comes down to is taking reality as it actually comes to us. As Chogyam Trungpa says, we take the drink straight, just as it comes, with no dilution factor. This is hard at the time, but it feels a lot better afterwards because the truth (unlike self-deception) always does us good in the long run! It is natural that what we see ‘stings’ us because the first thing we see is the way in which we have been slanting reality – the first thing we see is ‘the spin’ in other words. This is inevitably a painful sort of a thing but the good thing about the pain is that it shows us that we are on the right path – spin-doctoring is such a way of life to all of us that even if we decide we want to know the truth it is impossible to tell whether what we are seeing is ‘real’ or just another unconscious spin we are putting on it. If it disappoints or disillusions us, then the chances are it is authentic; Chogyam Trungpa calls this the ‘path of disappointment’ because the self-deceiving ego discovers, through a successive series of painful ‘knock-backs’ and disillusionments, that it is not the centre of the universe that it thought it was. On the other hand, if we find that we are feeling empowered, flattered, optimistic, and encouraged, then beware of the old spin-doctor!
READING THE SMALL PRINT
A good way to look at the process of learning not to react to difficulties by putting a spin on things is to think in terms of addiction. Not seeing reality straight is our comfort zone, but the trouble with this comfort zone (as with all comfort zones) is that it is only a comfort for half the time, for the other half of the time it is a torment not a comfort. We opt for it because it is safe, but when we do the deal to have reality the way we want it we really ought to look at the ‘small-print’ at the bottom of the contract. What the small-print says is that any comfort we obtain from our comfort zone is only lent to us, and it must be ‘paid for’ later on. The amount we borrow is equal to the amount we pay, and so any advantage that we might appear to be gaining is in actual fact non-existent. The advantage is an hallucination.
Another way to explain this is to say that life has rough edges. We don’t like the rough edges of life and so we carry some sandpaper around with us so that we can work away at the rough patches and make them nice and smooth. The ‘smoothness’ is therefore our comfort zone. Now the thing about comfort zones is that they don’t really solve anything, they just seem to solve something at the time. What actually happens is that as soon as I get one patch smooth, another rough bit comes along and I have to start the sandpapering all over again! This is like the film Groundhog Day where the hero has to live the same day over and over again. Another analogy for this is a wrinkly tablecloth – suppose I don’t like the wrinkles and I work at massaging them all away. I succeed, but when I succeed all I am really doing is displacing the wrinkles from one spot to another spot on the same tablecloth. So now I have to smooth out those wrinkles, and so on and so forth. The ‘smoothness’ is my comfort zone, but also my comfort zone is not seeing how futile it is trying to get rid of the wrinkles. We could also say that the ‘plus-phase’ of the spin cycle is my apparent success in solving the problem, whilst the ‘minus-phase’ is the reversal of this apparent success.
What this means is that the whole business of ‘spin-doctoring’ is a total waste of time – I end up going around and around like a demented hamster on its exercise wheel. I am on a treadmill, busy going nowhere, and what could be more frustrating than this? Furthermore, as if that wasn’t bad enough, engaging the services of the spin-doctor disconnects me from the only thing that can help me, the only thing makes life worth living, and that is Reality. I go around and around in my thoughts, trying to avoid some difficulty, and as a result I miss out on life entirely.
GOING COLD TURKEY
If I am addicted to the comfort zone of my slanted thoughts and perceptions (and the chances are very much that I am!), then the cure is to withdraw, to go cold turkey. When I am outside of my comfort zone I feel terrible, the experience is frankly unbearable and I cannot see how it could be possible to stick it. I just want to go running back to the ‘superficially okay’ version of reality that the internal spin-doctor has kindly created for me. But do I really want to go back to the treadmill of avoidance? If I stopped to reflect on then matter I might well find that I don’t. I might feel terrible, but it isn’t life that is the problem, just my habit of avoiding it. I only feel terrible because I am addicted to my unreal ‘comfort zone’. I am addicted to the services of the spin-doctor. I am addicted to escaping reality. So really it is this addiction that is making me feel so bad, and if I go running back to my comfort zone all I am doing is making this addiction stronger the whole time. I am nurturing the very thing that is tormenting me. If I go ‘cold turkey,’ on the other hand, then I will feel terrible for what is always only a finite period of time, and then – after I have gone through it – I will be free. It’s as simple and as reliable as that – it’s a principle that always holds true. Every alcoholic or heroin addict who has come through to the other side of his or her addiction knows this, and the very same principle applies to our situation since we are all heroin addicts in our own way! It’s just that our own way is subtler and much more socially-acceptable, so we don’t see it. It’s an ‘invisible addiction’ – it’s the addiction to the internal spin-doctor…
Art: The Spin Doctor by Hans Doller