Feedback loops

      15 Comments on Feedback loops

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about feedback loops.

If you are able to tap into a positive feedback loop in your thinking and behavior, it can be a wonderful thing. As an example, consider a novice guitarist. She’s more likely to practice if she feels like she’s making progress and getting better at her instrument. And the more she practices, the more progress she’ll make, the more at ease she feels. Which makes her want to practice more, which makes her better, which …

Sadly, the difference between a positive feedback loop and a negative one is often just a subtle difference in perspective. If feeling awkward playing the guitar makes you want to play and practice less, which means your skills atrophy, so you feel even more awkward, so you practice even less …

Which is just a long-winded way of saying feedback loops can be driven in either direction.

I’ve had experiences with those sorts of loops in relationships as well. I tend to warm up to a relationship fairly slowly. It takes a while for me to feel at ease and really comfortable with a person. But as I get more at ease and more relaxed with someone, the relationship starts going better, which makes me even more comfortable, which …

(Editorial aside: Apparently I don’t know how to talk about feedback loops without using a lot of ellipses.)

But I’ve also seen negative feedback loops in relationships. In my first serious relationship (hello there, you 🙂 there was a time where my girlfriend felt insecure and threatened. Which made her very clingy and possessive and needy. Which pushed my buttons and made me look for more space. Which left her feeling even more insecure, so she became even more clingy and …

I find those negative cycles to be enormously difficult to break. With that girlfriend, it took a concerted effort from both of us. She worked hard at trusting more in the relationship and accepting a certain amount of ebb and flow over time, and I made an effort to not pull away when she was feeling clingy. It was really hard work. Feedback loops are self-perpetuating and I found it very easy to slip back into the negative patterns that I was trying so hard to break.

I wish I knew a reliable (and easy) way to break those negative patterns, or even how to reverse direction and drive the loop in the positive direction instead. It’s deceptively easy to spot them and offer solutions when you see the patterns in someone else’s life, but I know from painful experience that it’s a very different challenge when you’re on the inside looking out.

15 thoughts on “Feedback loops

  1. thatsassylassie

    there is something kind of cool about logging on and having this be the first post I read. I am currently in a situation that I think is all about ebb and flow and search for balance, so this resonated with me a lot. 🙂 Good luck

    1. thatsassylassie

      now that I read what I wrote, I wish to clarify. I didn’t mean my situation was my relationship, but rather my life, the big picture. I am feeling pretty reflective about it, so may write later. But I appreciated your words.

      1. browse Post author

        I’m glad you liked it; thanks!

        Good luck on the reflections. I’ve had to make some pretty dramatic changes in my life to find something approximating balance. Or at the very least, better balance than I had before.

        Many years ago, I was discussing a big life decision with my dad. As I was fretting about the pros and cons, he contributed something like this, “You’re in your twenties, you have no debt, no kids, no mortgage. You’d have to try pretty damn hard to screw up your life. Be bold. There are very few mistakes you could make that aren’t undoable.” A lot of water has passed under the bridge since them. I’m not quite as young and free as I was then, but the basic idea has stuck with me. Be bold, and trust that if you’ve made a bad decision, you’ll figure some way out of it. I’d rather end my life regretting the things I did do, rather than regretting the things I didn’t do.

  2. yoopie

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I am guilty of the same…well with new hobbies. As for my relationships, I do look back at the other relationships I have had and see very clearly how I sabbotaged them to some degree. I work very hard with my current relationship however the difference is, he does TOO. Sometimes only one person will put any effort into trying which is also frustrating because it can make that person feel they are the ENTIRE reason that things may not be working in the relationship…yadda yadda

    anywho….I need to revisit your post or at least the train of thought you have laid out here because I can give a rather large list of things I have given up on because my efforts kept failing so in turn I just gave up…which is lame of me, I know.

    1. browse Post author

      I’m glad the post resonated with you.

      And for what it’s worth, I don’t think giving up is necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself. But I’ll save that topic for another post.

  3. ororo

    I’m stuck in one of those in relation to exercise. I don’t see results quickly, so I get discouraged. It doesn’t make me feel good, so I’m not exactly motivated.

    What I’m trying to say is, if you figure it out, clue me in?

        1. thunderslug

          Oh, that’s not what got me there. If I may, briefly: I went into my Dr.s office very overweight, and my arthritic knees and batting-average BP led himm to prescribe (the first reflex), and then said, in the flattest, most mechanical monotone, that I should exercise more and lose weight.

          Most of my 90 pound weigh loss was Spite: he didn’t think I could do it–safely.

  4. aanor

    In biology speak, all of the ‘loops’ you are describing are positive feedback loops: where a change in one direction is responded to with an action that fosters further change in the same direction. (these are rare in biology, as biology is concerned with homoeostasis most of the time). A negative feedback loop is where a change in one direction is responded to with an action that counters the change. (sorry to be such an insufferable nerd, but I couldn’t help myself =)

    1. browse Post author

      Pedants are hawt. 🙂

      An excellent point, thanks. I definitely was using “positive” and “negative” as value judgements, and not as technical terms. Is there a term for a positive feedback loop that happens to be running in a direction counter to your desires? “Annoying”? 😉

  5. loop

    cycle of resentment

    B. came up with the concept of the “cycle of resentment” which describe a form of negative feedback loop, which sounds a lot like your negative feedback loop (or at least a subset of it).

    Note: the “you” following is generic you.

    If you’re upset at someone, it’s all too easy to focus on the things they’ve done wrong, and conveniently forget about the things you’ve done that contributed to the situation. “If they would only then that would fix the problem”. But there are also probably things that you can do that would help, but you’re feeling too hurt/wronged/resentful to want to do it.

    The trick (not that it’s easy) is to step back, and try to imagine reasonable justifications for what they are doing, and try to feel sympathy/empathy for their position (yeah, duh, this is probably the answer to most relationship problems 🙂 As long as you’re focussed on what they are doing wrong, you’re feeding the cycle of resentment, and it’s going to be really hard for things to improve. But once you see things from their perspective, it makes it so much easier to want to examine your own behaviour, and want to work *with* the other person on fixing things.

    I wish I had insights on how to get to that point quickly, although just being aware of this pattern of behaviour makes it a little easier. In our household, the number of people present often exceeds the number of people caught up in any given instance of the cycle of resentment, so a less emotionally involved person can try to referee, translate, and point out different ways of looking at things.

    I’m enjoying reading about your noodlings 🙂

  6. thunderslug

    The funny thing about cycles as highs become lows (I’ll ignore Laurie’s death at this point) You learn something that is a massive upward feedback. And then, later, doing that same thing caused a massive collapse, one that does more damage than be repaired, even it you *think* you’ve stopped. There were other things, of course,but that one was the most ironic.

  7. dolmena

    It’s hard to break feedback cycles. Part of it is trying to think ahead to the reaction you may get, and try to do something unexpected– I actually have done this successfully a couple of times lately (yay, me!) Once I’ve mentioned to you– I gave a low key response when my partner mentioned that he made more money than I did. But mostly, the reaction is automatic and maybe even preverbal. To escape, you have to provide your own conditioning to counteract the response you have to outside stimulus. I don’t know an easy, reliable answer either, but that’s the angle I’m working.


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