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What to do when it feels like the world is gaslighting you

Have you ever had the somewhat surreal feeling that somehow all your tried-and-true ways of navigating the world don’t work any more? That you can’t make sense of what going on? That you don’t know what actions to take to effect the change you want?

You may think — what’s going on? Am I losing my mind? Have I become useless? I feel like someone changed the rules!

On the surface things can look the same, but things don’t make sense any more. It feels like the world is gaslighting you.

This isn’t as subjective as you might think. There’s a whole field of study on system behaviour that seeks to understand what kinds of rules are in place at any given time — and how they can change.

And when a system changes its behaviour you need a different toolkit to deal with it.

Maintaining personal sovereignty in chaos

When situations change we sometimes roll with the punches and cope just fine. Other times we feel like we fall apart — why is that?

I think it has a lot to do with two things:

  1. Personal sovereignty,
  2. The toolkit you use to maintain your sovereignty in a range of situations.

Sovereignty — without it you feel overwhelmed

A while back I fell down a rabbit hole reading Jordan Hall’s stuff, and the main takeaway for me was his writing on personal sovereignty.

It’s a handy name for something we all intuitively understand – the more you are able to understand and control your part in the world, the better you feel. It’s characterised in three parts:

  1. Your ability to relate to the world.
  2. Your ability to make sense of the world.
  3. Your ability to make and effect choice in the world.

When you have personal sovereignty you feel in control, relaxed, things are easily understood, choices are clear. You feel resourceful.

Without personal sovereignty you feel constantly on the back foot, overwhelmed, reactive. You feel impotent.

Your sovereignty is tightly coupled with your toolkit

When you are used to the world behaving in a certain way, you develop a nice toolkit for working within it. You know what your role is, you know what it means when things happen and you know what to do about it. If you’re used to a predictable environment you have the tools to operate in it. If you are used to a chaotic environment you also have the tools to operate in it — but they are different tools.

When the rules change the tools change

Maybe you’re dealing with Chaos

When it feels like the rules have changed — maybe they have!

I return to the Cynefin framework over and over to help me make sense of things.

By Snowden — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Let’s imagine you are used to working in a Complicated environment — one where you were able to understand the problem, pick a suitable course of action and execute it to get the results you needed (Sense-Analyse-Respond). Cause and effect are closely aligned. You feel confident playing by these rules when you’re used to working this way. Your toolkit works.

Something happens, maybe you don’t even realise that it has, and the Complicated environment now starts to behave like Chaotic environment. There are no longer any insights in the input you are getting, no expert seems to be able to advise you adequately. All decisions feel like guesses. Your toolkit of understanding the problem and choosing a suitable course of action doesn’t work any more — when you try it you don’t get the results you want.

In Chaos you need a new toolkit

In Chaos your toolkit is Act-Sense-Respond. No amount of thinking will help, you have to get out there and just try something, then see what happens, then try another thing and bootstrap your way to an acceptable outcome. In another blog post I explain this as like being lost in a forest.

For many of us, being OK with this is a huge ask. And we get stuck on blaming ourselves for the Complicated toolkit not working. We double down on using the wrong toolkit — getting expert advice, planning, analysing. When it doesn’t work we blame the experts, the planners, the analysts and we get some new ones.

What we need to do is use a different toolkit. Wisdom is not putting a tomato in the fruit bowl, and not using a Complicated toolkit for a Chaotic situation.

So next time you feel like the world is gaslighting you — maybe explore whether using a different toolkit will help you get your personal sovereignty back?

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