Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Fragidity: The Fragile Rigidity of the Brittle Ego

What to look for, how to deal with it

It happens to the best of us. Our lives get shaken; our grooves get broken. We get a little disoriented or maybe a lot. It’s all we can do to keep it together and every little further perturbation; real or perceived is a threat.

So we circle the wagons, hyper-vigilant against attacks, challenges, feedback or questions.  We get prickly and rigid, insistent that we’re on top of things, precisely because we’re not. To those around us it can look like the height of arrogance but it’s actually vulnerability. We don’t think more of ourselves, but less and are grasping for the self-certainty we’ve lost.

For some of us it’s not a phase but a way of life. We need affirmation and never have enough.  Like hummingbirds who need nectar every 15 minutes to stay alive, we need a shot of self-certainty every few minutes. We bend and contort all conversations, all topics and all comments into positive reflections on us. Like corporate spin-doctors in a crisis, it’s all about damage control, even when there are no signs that damage has been done. The people around us wonder why we need to keep proving ourselves every few minutes, why our bravado is always in high gear.

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Often we tie ourselves to the mast of some popular or pariah grand social campaign. We’re on a mission purportedly to convince people of some world-saving ideology, a solution to a global existential crisis. But it doesn’t come off that way.  It’s not the world we’re saving but ourselves.  We’re treading water, exhausted, frantic, flailing, trying to save ourselves.

These world-changing campaigns have their seasons. The missionary Christian, Muslim, leftist, new ager, Republican, Tea Partier, even climate crisis solver, all on a tireless mission, tiresome in the execution. Our achy hearts resonate with the global crisis we’re on a mission to solve. We project the problem as out there, not at home in our achy hearts. We get insistent, overwhelming, preachy, oblivious to our audience. For example, I’ll sometimes raise a question with friends about how to resolve the climate crisis, and get surprising blowback, normally considerate people telling me the one true and absolutely sure-fire way to deal with the problem. If there was one problem that dosen’t have an absolutely sure-fire solution, it’s climate crisis.

Fragidity doesn’t always attach itself to a grand campaign. It can manifest as a general prickliness, a tendency to feel attacked whether we are or aren’t. A symptom is what I call “leaden answers” a counterpart to “leading questions.” A leading question is a loaded question, like “Were you cruel to him?” Since cruelty is obviously bad, the question leads us to answer no, regardless of the situation. 

With someone suffering fragidity, it doesn’t matter if the question is loaded, the answers are leaden by even the slightest whiff of threat. “Were you frustrated this morning?” “Of course not, I’m not frustrated. I wouldn’t be frustrated. I’m always reasonable! How dare you insinuate otherwise?” as though frustration is a mark against you. 

Such leaden answers are leaden in two ways. The answer is being led by the emotional nose, no regard to substance only threatened status, and the conversations that ensue are deadly dull and heavy, like lead. They go nowhere, slow, the fragid person's insistence drowning out all true exploration.

Nor can you bring up how the conversation is going nowhere without that too feeling like a threat. Dealing with the brittle fragid person means living in what’s known as a double bind.  Regardless of what you feel about the fragid person’s behavior, they coerce you into regarding them as above board and honorable. That’s the first bind, and if you try to get out of it with some process talk, the fragid response will be “How dare you insinuate that I’m anything but above board.” That’s the second bind. The fragid person’s insistence on his rightness is exhausting, perhaps deliberately, prone to long monologues about their virtue and victimhood. Dare to raise the slightest challenge to his interpretation and he’ll start the monologue over from the beginning.

Close relationships, especially romantic ones are breeding grounds for fragidity. We partner in large part for a reliable source of very local affirmation. They start with a honeymoon of mutual admiration, but as reality kicks in, we discover that the coziness has confined us in very close quarters with someone who can destabilize us, on purpose or impulse. If we don’t watch out, the relationship becomes not cooperation but black and white competition for who gets to occupy the high ground, leaving both parties prickly and impractical, unable to negotiate for anything but dear life.

Dear life is at stake for all of us, due to everyone’s potential for fragidity. When the going gets tough, all of us might feel disoriented, as though the groove we travel had its walls dismantled and we’re drifting loose, unguided by what to do. 

If you noticed people getting more prickly during the economic crisis; if you find people getting more rigid and brittle in general in our increasingly uncertain world, that’s fragidity. Fragidity makes us frigidly rigid in idiocy. 

The Tea Party and Republican excesses of late are right on schedule. They’re just the response we would expect in times like these. And though the fragid response is always firm and absolute, it’s anything but consistent. Circumstances don’t matter; content doesn’t matter. All that matters is protecting the fragile vulnerable brittle ego. With that as the crisis’ priority, being consistent doesn’t matter either.

Fragidity is the opposite of resilience and adaptiveness. So how to protect against it? 

Know it, and not just as what stupid people do but what we all might do in a pinch. Look for it in yourself as well as in others. Remember that diagnosing it in others is always guesswork.  Sometimes people are insistent because they’re right or at least because they really mean it. Fragid people are the first to accuse others of fragidity.

The clearest symptom of fragidity is that it's systematic, it’s not insistent here or there but absolutely everywhere. The best diagnostic tests I’ve found for it are asking seemingly fragid people what they’re uncertain about. What don’t they know or have down pat? Where are they still wondering about things? If their answers are defensive, hollow or non-existent, it’s a good, though not a sure sign that they’re suffering at least a bout if not a lifetime of fragidity.

If you can, steer clear of people you bet are fragid. Fragidity is contagious. It’s hard to be around the brittle without becoming brittle in response. When we’re fragid all that matters is self-defense, which generally takes the form of attacks on others, you for example if you're within range. “I’m absolutely right” generally translates as “You’re absolutely wrong.” When it gets as black and white as that, we’re all under attack, and agility goes out the window. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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