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So you want to keep your lover or your employee close. Bound to you, even. You have a few options. You could be the best lover they've ever had, kind, charming, thoughtful, competent, witty, and a tiger in bed. You could be the best workplace they've ever had, with challenging work, rewards for talent, initiative, and professional development, an excellent work/life balance, and good pay. But both of those options demand a lot from you. Besides, your lover (or employee) will stay only as long as she wants to under those systems, and you want to keep her even when she doesn't want to stay. How do you pin her to your side, irrevocably, permanently, and perfectly legally?


You create a sick system.

A sick system has four basic rules:

Rule 1: Keep them too busy to think. Thinking is dangerous. If people can stop and think about their situation logically, they might realize how crazy things are.

Rule 2: Keep them tired. Exhaustion is the perfect defense against any good thinking that might slip through. Fixing the system requires change, and change requires effort, and effort requires energy that just isn't there. No energy, and your lover's dangerous epiphany is converted into nothing but a couple of boring fights.

This is also a corollary to keeping them too busy to think. Of course you can't turn off anyone's thought processes completely—but you can keep them too tired to do any original thinking. The decision center in the brain tires out just like a muscle, and when it's exhausted, people start making certain predictable types of logic mistakes. Found a system based on those mistakes, and you're golden.

Rule 3: Keep them emotionally involved. Make them love you if you can, or if you're a company, foster a company culture of extreme loyalty. Otherwise, tie their success to yours, so if you do well, they do well, and if you fail, they fail. If you're working in an industry where failure isn't a possibility (the government, utilities), establish a status system where workers do better or worse based on seniority. (This also works in bad relationships if you're polyamorous.)

Also note that if you set up a system in which personal loyalty and devotion are proof of your lover's worthiness as a person, you can make people love you. Or at least think they love you. In fact, any combination of intermittent rewards plus too much exhaustion to consider other alternatives will induce people to think they love you, even if they hate you as well.

Rule 4: Reward intermittently. Intermittent gratification is the most addictive kind there is. If you know the lever will always produce a pellet, you'll push it only as often as you need a pellet. If you know it never produces a pellet, you'll stop pushing. But if the lever sometimes produces a pellet and sometimes doesn't, you'll keep pushing forever, even if you have more than enough pellets (because what if there's a dry run and you have no pellets at all?). It's the motivation behind gambling, collectible cards, most video games, the Internet itself, and relationships with crazy people.

How do you do all this? It's incredibly easy:

Keep the crises rolling. Incompetence is a great way to do this: If the office system routinely works badly or the controlling partner routinely makes major mistakes, you're guaranteed ongoing crises. Poor money management works well, too. So does being in an industry where the clients are guaranteed to be volatile and flaky, or preferring friends who are themselves in perpetual crisis. You can also institutionalize regular crises: Workers in the Sea Org, the elite wing of Scientology, must exceed the previous week's production every single week or face serious penalties. Because this is impossible, it guarantees regular crises as the deadline approaches.

Regular crises perform two functions: They keep people too busy to think, and they provide intermittent reinforcement. After all, sometimes you win—and when you've mostly lost, a taste of success is addictive.

But why wouldn't people eventually realize that the crises are a permanent state of affairs? Because you've explained them away with an explanation that gives them hope.

Things will be better when... I get a new job. I'm mean to you now because I'm so stressed, but I'm sure that will go away when I'm not working at this awful place.

The production schedule is crazy because the client is nuts. We just need to get through this cycle, then we'll have a new client, and they'll be much better.

She has a bad temper because she just started with a new therapist. She'll be better when she settles in.

Now, the first person isn't actually looking for a job. (They're too stressed to fill out applications.) The second industry always has another crazy client, because all the clients are crazy. (Or better yet, because the company is set up to destroy the workflow and make the client look crazy.) The third person has been with her “new” therapist for a year. (But not for three years! Or five!) But the explanation sounds plausible, and every now and then the person has a good day or a production cycle goes smoothly. Intermittent reinforcement + hope = “Someday it will always be like this.” Perpetual crises mean the person is too tired to notice that it has never been like this for long.

Keep real rewards distant. The rewards in “Things will be better when...” are usually nonrewards—things will go back to being what they should be when the magical thing happens. Real rewards—happiness, prosperity, career advancement, a new house, children—are far in the distance. They look like they're on the schedule, but there's nothing in the To Do column. For example, everything will be better when we move to our own house in the country... but there's nothing in savings for the house, no plan to save, no house picked out, not even a region of the country settled upon. Or everything will be better when she gets a new job, but she's not applying anywhere, she's not checking the classifieds, she has no skills that would get her a new job, she has no concrete plans to learn skills, and she doesn't know what type of new job she wants to take. Companies have a harder time holding out on rewards, but endlessly delayed raises and promotions, workplace upgrades that are talked about but never get enough budget, and training programs that are canceled for lack of money work well.

Establish one small semi-occasional success. This should be a daily task with a stake attached and a variable chance of success. For example, you need to take your meds at just the right time. Too early and you're logy the next morning and late to work, too late and you're insomniac and keep your partner up until you go to sleep, too anything and you develop nausea that interrupts your meal schedule and sets your precariously balanced blood sugar to swinging, sparking tantrums and weeping fits. It's your partner's job to get you to take your meds at just the right time. Each time she finds an ideal time, it becomes a point of contention—you're always busy at that time, or you're not at home, or you eat too early or too late so the ideal time shifts or vanishes entirely. But every so often you take your meds at just the right time and everything works perfectly, and then your partner gets a jolt of success and the hope that you've reached a turning point.

Chop up their time. Perpetually interrupt them with meetings, visits from supervisors, bells and whistles and time clocks and hourly deadlines. Or if you're partners, be glued to them at the hip, demand their attention at short intervals throughout the day (and make it clear that they aren't allowed to do the same with you), establish certain essential tasks that you won't do and then demand that they do them for you, establish certain essential tasks that they aren't allowed to do for themselves and demand that they rely on you to do it for them (and then do it slowly or badly or on your own schedule). Make sure they have barely enough time to manage both the crisis of the moment and the task of the moment; and if you can't tire them out physically, drain them emotionally.

Enmesh your success with theirs. Company towns are great at this. Everything, from the workers' personal social standing to the selection of groceries at the store, depends upon how well they do their jobs and how well the company as a whole is doing. Less enveloping companies try to tie their workers' self-perceptions in with the public's perception of their brand. People do it by entangling their successes and failures with their partners', even when they shouldn't be entangled. A full-grown adult should be able to take his meds without his partner's help, and there's only so much anyone can do to make someone eat at the right time and swallow their pills, but he still puts the responsibility for managing his meds squarely on her shoulders. The classic maneuver is to blame all your bad moods on your partner: If they weren't so _______ or if they did ______ right, you wouldn't be so stressed/angry/foul-tempered.

Keep everything on the edge. Make sure there's never quite enough money, or time, or goods, or status, or anything else people might want. Insufficiency makes sick systems self-perpetuating, because if there's never enough ______ to fix the system, and never enough time to think of a better solution, everyone has to work on all six cylinders just to keep the system from collapsing.

All of these things work together to make a bad workplace or a bad relationship addictive. You're run off your feet putting out fires and keeping things going, your own world will collapse if you stop, and every so often you succeed for a moment and create something bigger than yourself. Things will get better soon. You can't stop believing that. If you stop believing, you won't be able to go on, and you can't not go on because everything you have and everything you are is tied into making this thing work. You can't see any way out because there are always all these things stopping you, and you could try this thing but that would take time and money, and you don't have either, and you've been told that you'll get both eventually when that other thing happens, and pushing won't make that thing happen so it's better to keep your head down and wait. After a while the stress and panic feel normal, so when you're not riding the edge, you feel twitchy because you know that the lull doesn't mean things are better, it means you're not aware yet of what's going wrong. And the system or the partner always, always obliges with a new crisis.

Eventually you're so crazy that you can't interact with anyone who isn't equally crazy. Normal people have either fled, or told you once too often that you're being stupid and you need to leave. So now you've lost all your reality checks. You're surrounded by people who also live in the crazy and can't see a way out. You spend your time telling one another that it's too bad, but that's how it is, there's no fixing it, and everything will get better when ______ happens. If anyone does get a little better and says, “Hey, guys, this is crazy, we can all stop now,” they've become a stuck cog in the machine. They quickly realize that there's nothing they can do, and they pull out, leaving you alone with your crazy friends.

Finally you think it's ordinary.

You fantasize about being suicidal enough to kill yourself. But that's not all that bad, because you don't think that way all the time, and you're not actually trying to kill yourself. You just wish something would come along and make you dead.

One day you hit rock bottom. Maybe you want so badly to die that stepping out of the sick system looks like a good way to commit suicide, or maybe you're so depressed that you no longer care. Maybe you catch on before then, and realize, as you're standing there with the pill in your hand and your partner too busy on WoW to swallow it, that this is crazier than crazy and it's time to make it stop. Maybe the system makes a mistake, and you look at the pattern of people who got promotions and realize that you will never, never qualify for your promised promotion.

Or maybe a door opens, and something magical happens. The position you've dreamed of opens up. The school you want to go to offers a new scholarship for people just like you—and the person who runs the scholarship tells you confidentially that with your qualifications, you're a shoo-in. Your granduncle dies and leaves you $100,000. You can have exactly what you want—if you walk away from the system you're enmeshed in.

If you step away, two things happen, one after the other:

PANIC! HORROR! THE SKY IS FALLING! I'VE LOST EVERYTHING I EVER HAD AND I'LL NEVER GET IT BACK AGAIN! There's not enough stress, something is wrong, something horrible is happening and I'm not there stopping it, oh god what is my ex-boyfriend doing and can I save him from a safe distance? I'm responsible! I have to call the office and make sure they're okay! I have to make sure everything I left was okay, because it would all fall down without me and now I'm not there and it's falling down and all those innocent people are being hurt and I have to stop it!

...I feel so much better now.

It's all gone, like someone stopped pounding me in the head with a hammer. I didn't even know the hammer was there. Why did I let someone pound me in a hammer all that time? What in hell was I thinking? Why did I think any of that made sense?

Once you're out of the system, it makes no sense at all. None of the carrots they dangled before you mean anything, and you start to truly comprehend just how much stress you were under. You see things you never would have believed while you were in the system. And the relief is greater than you ever could have imagined while you were enmeshed.

~~~

But the “you” in these last several paragraphs isn't the “you” from the beginning. To the “you” from the beginning, the lover or employer who needed to set up a sick system to keep other people close, I say: Don't worry. It's not the end of the world. It feels like that right now, when you're all alone and your ex-lover is a hundred miles away; when you're understaffed and your best employees have left you for the competition. But now that you know the secret of setting up a sick system, you know the truth:

Anyone can get caught in your sick system if you start slowly enough.

Anyone can fit into your sick system if your standards are low enough.

Any sick system can meet your needs if you keep your needs small enough.


You'll have a new person fitted into the vacancy in your system in no time. Go out and find some fresh blood, and remember: Don't fit the system to the person, fit the person to the system.



ETA: WHOA, IT PROPAGATED. Look at it go! I'm so pleased that y'all are finding this true and useful. If you'd like to link to it or quote from it, please do. I only ask that you not repost the whole thing.

ETA 2: There are some amazing links in the comments, including:

Not All Vampires Suck Blood - Anton LaVey discusses psychic vampires--people who feign helplessness to keep others under their control. These are exactly the kinds of people who set up sick systems.

Fugitivus: On Interpersonal Badness - On breaking out of sick systems, and how to deal with the aftermath. Read the comments, then read the rest of the blog, because Harriet is incredible.

In Waiting - bigbigtruck 's sometimes funny, sometimes serious series on life as a waitress in an industry that's set up as a chronic sick system. Shows how the system pulls people in, how it keeps them there, and how far it's willing to go to exploit them once it has them. (Warning for a potential trigger in #11.)

ETA 3: Now translated into Russian, with insightful commentary at the end drawn from the software industry.

Comments

( 315 comments — Leave a comment )
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phoenixisrisen
Jun. 18th, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
Holy cow.

You just described my 12 year relationship with my now-ex husband.

Until I got some distance from him, I thought we had a great marriage.. with distance I saw how controlling and selfish he was.. what hurt the most was realizing that he never really cared that much at all- when he lost control, he threw me away like trash.

I'm so much better off.
sonicsuns
Jun. 18th, 2010 04:55 am (UTC)
Excellent article.

For me, the system was high school. My greatest regret is all the stress I put myself through there. I lost years of creative potential.
wtchywmyn
Jun. 18th, 2010 05:32 am (UTC)
Hospitals work this way too.


Thanks for posting, I'll be passing it along too.
anda
Jun. 20th, 2010 11:13 pm (UTC)
Yeah. I'm not in that field, but every time I read about interns (or regular staff or friends in it) working 16-24+ hour shifts, I'm reminded of the study that demonstrated that being awake more than 16 hours straight impaired one similarly to having a drink...
(no subject) - wtchywmyn - Jun. 21st, 2010 01:01 am (UTC) - Expand
belager
Jun. 18th, 2010 09:12 pm (UTC)
sick educational institutions
I agree that high schools and colleges can often be or contain sick systems, but I think it needs to be pointed out that they differ significantly from relationships and jobs (at least for the students). Most of the differences arise from the variability between and within schools, and from the fact that not all educational institutions are intentionally designed to be "sick."

In any given educational institution, there will be a wide gradient of students and teachers. Students can range from motivated hard workers to slackers, apt to disinterested, or abstract thinkers to hands-on learners. Likewise teachers can range from strict to understanding, obscure to clear, or challenging to easy-going. This variability allows for lots of different possible teacher-student systems, some of which might be healthy and others sick. Given luck, intelligence, and skill, a teacher or student might remain perfectly sane; lacking them they might not. In a sick student teacher relationship, for example, if an average or below average student who cares about their grades gets a teacher who assigns challenging homework and grades harshly, that student will find themselves in a sick system. However, an average student with an easy going teacher or an excellent student with a challenging teacher will probably do fine without tiring themselves out too much. Generally a student who either does not care about their grades or gets good grades easily will be fine. Thus, sick systems in institutions often exist on a student-to-student or classroom-to-classroom basis. They can be transient as well, when teachers change policies or students switch classes. Much of it is in the mind of the student: a students and teachers can exit their little sick system bubble if they realize that (a) learning in and of itself is more important than grades, and/or (b) the limitations of mind and body must both be respected.

Schools are usually not completely sick systems because they do not need to be. Sick systems form because the creator of the system wants to get something out of its prey for less than it gives. Students (well, parents) pay money regularly (as taxes or straight up) for education. However, the quality of education received by the student depends not only on the amount they pay, but on the integrity of the administration, the skill of the teachers, and the attitude and aptitude of the student. Thanks to how it is funded, a school has little motivation to slack off on giving the students a good education and create a completely sick system. Thus schools do not become sick systems in the same way as other institutions: they become sick by accident.
brock_tn
Jun. 19th, 2010 01:16 am (UTC)
Ahhh...

...thank you for putting all of this in easy-to-understand terms. I've worked in that sort of situation before. On several occasions. Having it all explanified like this will make identifying the problem easier in the future.
porcineflight
Jun. 19th, 2010 09:14 am (UTC)
Wow
How insightful! Very validating.
tenshikurai9
Jun. 19th, 2010 04:39 pm (UTC)
On In Waiting, #11: I'm wondering what laws are on the books about medical emergencies and who to file a complaint with since her uterus could have been seriously damaged by delayed care.
issendai
Jun. 23rd, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
Excellent question. She probably wouldn't be willing to file even if she could, though--bad employers are mighty good at preventing that. They'd go out of business otherwise.
interactiveleaf
Jun. 19th, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC)
I just spent a year watching my roommate recover from a relationship that was abusive that he couldn't see his ex's name on the "From" line of an email without feeling sick to his stomach.

This post goes a long way to explaining why he didn't walk away a long time sooner.

Thank you for writing it.
aqua_eyes
Jun. 20th, 2010 09:15 pm (UTC)
reminds me of half of my jobs. but I;m out of one because they fired us, end of season... and then where suprised when we didn't come back because we'd gotten another job. ;)
rnork
Jun. 21st, 2010 12:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you and congratulations.
Thank you for a great article. I have been struggling to combine and put all these thoughts into words for some time now.

(Deleted comment)
issendai
Jun. 23rd, 2010 12:30 am (UTC)
Congratulations! I wish you success, and the fortitude to not stab anyone until you can break free. Which skills are you learning, if you don't mind my asking?
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - issendai - Jun. 23rd, 2010 03:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
ryriedel
Jun. 22nd, 2010 09:46 pm (UTC)
thanks.
thank you very much for your post. supremely insightful.
kayay
Jun. 22nd, 2010 09:49 pm (UTC)
"Things will be better when... " is one I heard a lot from a friend who hated her job. When I'd prod her to quit, she'd cite the need for money -- though she really wasn't in a financial pickle as she lived at home with no rent, bills, or food to pay for -- then turn around and, after just going on about how horrible her job and boss is, claim, "It's/he's not that bad, though," and "It'll get better when I..." To date, she's still working there and still hates it.

This is also tied to the possessive significant other who is often also a skilled manipulator.
issendai
Jun. 23rd, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC)
Arrrgh, yes. Complaining for hours and then immediately retracting everything when someone suggests change is a major sign that you're caught in a sick system. It's creepily similar to cycles of depression in which people say/post how miserable they are and how they don't think they can live this way any more, then a couple of hours later they deny deny deny. They didn't mean it! How could you think they meant it? It was just a silly thing they did because of some totally unrelated stress. Everything is fine, was fine, will always be fine, STOP SAYING I'M DEPRESSED GOD DAMN IT.

I'm sorry she's trapped. Being caught between a sick job system and a sick relationship system must be hell for her, and I wish her luck and strength in getting out.
(no subject) - xplo_eristotle - Sep. 15th, 2012 06:16 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - issendai - Sep. 15th, 2012 12:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
j_m_perkins
Jun. 23rd, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
Wow
An unfortunately true and wholly chill inducing description about exactly what things you have to do to get people to 'love' you beyond all reason and sense.  I've mostly managed to dodge this bullet when it comes to relationships (despite my earlier in life penchant for girls that were batshit insane) but I've still experienced some of this in the tangle of my pre-married love life and quite a bit of it in my working life.  This article reminds me of a much more immoral version of Robert Greene's The Art of Seduction which I also find more useful in my dealings with companies and media than with other human beings.  I hope my kids read things like this, I hope that reading about our vulnerabilities as human beings helps inoculate us against all the psychic vampires and tiny puppet masters this world abounds with.  But I'm not entirely convinced that this is so, I fear that when it comes to the most painful lessons most people can only learn through direct, agonizing experience.

On a related note, here's a youtube video about how to start your own cult. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnNSe5XYp6E

astrangerfate
Jun. 23rd, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)
Great read, if a little scary. Thanks for that! :)
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