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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

fer_de_lance
Jun. 10th, 2010 01:17 am (UTC)
Rule 1 + Rule 2 explain so much of working retail, wherein standing still for 30 seconds -- even if all of your assigned tasks are done -- is verboten.
issendai
Jun. 10th, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC)
Retail, food service, customer service, phone bank, and factory jobs all seem to operate under the assumption that the workers don't want to be there and have to be coerced to work. You see the perpetual busyness, the system of piddling, hard-to-get rewards, and the promises that everything will be better in the fabled future, plus deadline-induced crises, ridiculous hours (the managers get hit harder than the workers), and the kind of rolling crises you see in any customer-based enterprise. Then you get an economic system that prevents workers from knowing what jobs are available or effectively comparing jobs, and you feel that you can't afford to leave because the next job's not going to be any better. It's astonishing how shittily most low-level workers are treated.
maidenus
Jun. 12th, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
Dear god yes. My fiance is working in the fast food business right now... It puts a hell of a strain on him, and while he's had some very good managers, the current one is absolutely terrible! Terrible to the point that even customers notice how horribly she treats the crew.
sorcha_r
Jun. 13th, 2010 02:54 am (UTC)
Oh, yes. I just recently (like, yesterday) got a generous raise (well, generous for my company, we're a social-services non-profit and money isn't exactly flowing from the faucets) and amazing review, showing that my hard work was appreciated, at my job that I love from my boss who is awesome. It reminded me of how at my last job for a big-box retailer, when I had my review it was blatantly obvious that my supervisor scored me just low enough to keep me from getting a raise...in the princely sum of a dime an hour. A DIME. In this day and age, that raise is an insult even if you do get it. Needless to say, I didn't stick around much longer.
katfeete
Jun. 13th, 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
And it's a self-perpetuating system. We recently had someone walk out of my workplace that we'd given the job, extensive training, and (most recently) full health-care coverage, basically because we *weren't* giving her the constant piddling rewards. She simply didn't have the reference to realize we were offering her a CAREER -- a chance she wasn't getting again, given she doesn't even have a high school diploma -- and stability, rather than constant abuse alleviated by tiny, short-term rewards. (The health care was a good example. It bewildered her. Why wouldn't you just go to the emergency room if you got sick? They can't turn you away, and they can't *make* you pay the bills. Credit rating? Why would you need that, when you only buy cars from shifty dealerships, and any purchase more serious than a car is not a consideration, because it would involve planning for the future and neither you nor anyone you know has ever done that, because they're too busy dealing with the crisis of the moment?)

My workplace isn't short on crisises (worse luck), but they tend to be drawn-out, hard-to-solve ones. So in our brief downtimes she'd *invent* crisises, of the short, dramatic type she was used to. And when a genuine crisis popped up, she couldn't understand why it went on and on and *on*, long after it'd stopped being interesting or feeding the reward/disappointment rollercoaster. Because that's what crisises are *for*, and we were silly people for not abandoning them when they got boring. What do you mean, it's not an invented crisis?

... don't get me started on the inability to comprehend "consequences".

In a way, it was a relief when she left, except for the whole thing where she quit without notice, made two people cancel their vacations, and sent us careening into a new people-shortage crisis that we're still dragging through. She's working a call center where they treat her like crap now. She's much happier.

The universe is a remarkably stupid place.
teddywolf
Jun. 13th, 2010 11:19 pm (UTC)
The Universe isn't all that stupid. Some people, on the other hand, are extremely stupid.
griffen
Jun. 18th, 2010 04:57 pm (UTC)
Without knowledge of what we've been through, we tend to return to what is familiar, even if it's pain. Look at the people who go through lover after lover and always have the same exact problems with them, or end up in dead-end job after dead-end job.
ext_256072
Sep. 13th, 2010 05:41 pm (UTC)
A chilling reminder of just what crap low-level workers must undergo, Barbara Eihrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" is a must. She, a Harper's editor/college professor at the time (if I remember correctly) decided to go for a year undercover as a laborer in various menial functions: food service, maid service, etc.

Sad, though. I mean, how does it happen? Do people/managers/owners start out with the best intentions and somewhere get lost down some psychic hellhole? (I mean the instigators of the sick system) Is it, as far as jobs/employment, the fact that the economy and the entire economic system itself is inherently sick? Or are some people just evil?

thx for this. Though it's like 6 months old, it randomly showed up on my twitter feed!
e_mily
Jun. 14th, 2010 03:58 pm (UTC)
Ahhhh retail. One of the only job fields where you get punished for doing everything that you're supposed to, in a timely manner.

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