Creative Symptoms

“Pull out, pull out, you’ve hit an artery”
—caption on a Gary Larson cartoon depicting a mosquito, eyes wide and desperate, approaching the shape of a balloon.

Some Creative Symptom questions: How at your best do you respond when facing situations that stretch you beyond that which with you can comfortably deal. At your worst? How at their best do other systems of which you are a part (a friendship, a business or other organization, your country) respond when facing situations that require more than they can effectively manage?  At their worst?

The concept of Capacitance raises the obvious—and illuminating—question of what systems do when pushed beyond their available Capacitance. Without protective mechanisms, the consequences of exceeding creative limits can be severe. The concept of Creative Symptoms addresses this question of protection. It also helps us make sense of easily confusing behaviors and better understand how to assist systems when needed Capacitance is more than they have available.

Creative Systems Theory observes that human systems perceive challenging experiences as meaningful—alive, true in a creative sense—up to the limits of their Capacitance. At that point we experience perturbation. We have common language for how we respond if we aren’t up to how much Capacitance a moment requires. We “lose it,” get “bent out of shape.”  More precisely, at that limit, one of three things takes place:  the system expands itself and grows, it acts consciously to protect itself (so the creative vessel will not be expanded too far), or in some way the system protects itself covertly (hopefully with enough effectiveness that major damage is avoided). The term Creative Symptom refers to the last of these options.

Creative Symptoms can offer more effective safety than overt boundaries.  Because conscious boundaries tend to make a system more visible, they can put a system at further risk (make it a more obvious target). But we pay a price when we use this last line of defense.  Symptoms diminish flexibility—they are “habitual.” And they block “good” experience along with “bad,” not just experience that threatens to harm but also that needed to learn and adapt. When chronic, Creative Symptoms can slow or even arrest development. But the price paid is preferable to the harm that can ensue if protection is breached.

Symptom is not an ideal word to describe such unconscious protective mechanisms. The presence of creative symptoms does not necessarily imply pathology—making boundaries is a critical component of health. But the link between symptom in this specifically systemic sense and other dynamics for which we might apply the term is strong enough to justify its use. Indeed helping us better understand mechanisms that may underlie symptoms in the word’s more conventional usage is one the most important applications of the concept of Creative Symptoms.

While Creative Symptoms take a great multiplicity of forms, Creative Systems Theory proposes that the underlying strategy with all of them is the same. Put most simple, Creative Symptoms amplify polarity. This mechanism protects the system by getting it out of the line of fire or by neutralizing the challenge to Capacitance (or sometimes both).

We could look to any scale or type of system for examples. Drawing on parallels with how a psychotherapist might use the word symptom offers the most ready illustration. Unconscious psychological protective mechanisms can be thought of as exaggerated manifestations of common vertical and horizontal psychological polarities.  Some polar diversions shield us by lifting us above the perceived threat (e.g., intellectualization or grandiosity). Others drop us below the potential insult (e.g., depression or the victim posture of passive aggression). Some shift our attention internal to the threat (e.g., withdrawal or denial). Others direct our focus external to the threat (e.g., combativeness or obsessively busying ourselves). Some of these responses shield us from contact (e.g.  obsessiveness or withdrawal). Others function by engaging the perceived threat in ways designed to diminish its effect (e.g. combative or undermining behavior). Often we use two or more of these strategies simultaneously.  Such mechanisms can be ongoing ways of relating to the bigness of life or time-specific responses to particular kinds or intensities of challenge.



—Inner—                                                                                —outer—
withdrawal                                                                            combativeness
avoidance                                                                              obsessive activity
denial                                                                                     active obstinacy


reactive emotionality
passive aggression

A sampling of vertical and horizontal psychological symptoms

Note that while we may label these responses as discrete categories of pathology, they are really just exaggerated expressions of polar tendencies. From the extreme right, rigor becomes rigor mortis. From the extreme left, flexibility becomes a lifeless puddle.  Whether they are best thought of as pathology or simply protection cannot be determined from the Symptom alone.

We tend to use different language when addressing different kinds and scales of Systems, but families and organizations too can become depressed, grandiose, or oblivious. And countries and whole cultures are similarly vulnerable—and just as creatively clever. The concept of Creative Symptoms offers a common framework for understanding protective responses at all systemic scales, and more, an integrated language for addressing responses that may involve multiple, interplaying systems.

There need be nothing wrong with a system for Creative Symptoms to manifest.  Stretched sufficiently, any Creative Whole will evidence such protective mechanisms—there would be something wrong with it if it didn’t. Often when we see Symptoms something is indeed the matter, specifically broken. But just as frequently, differences we see in vulnerability to Symptoms are a product of natural variations in Capacitance or the Capacitance differences inherent to stages of creative development. Two individuals may constitutionally differ in their resiliency. And challenges that an adult, a mature organization, or a modern country might take in stride could easily overwhelm a child, an organization in its start-up phase, or a less economically and technologically developed state.

How do we best think of the significance of Symptoms? We can frame them just as appropriately as good, bad, or merely information. Symptoms represent important ways systems protect themselves (good). They are evidence of a discrepancy between available Capacitance and that required (bad). And they are indicators of where growth in a system may be possible and timely (simply information).

This more systemic picture has major implications when it comes to intervention.  For example, it predicts that making better boundaries—which helps protect systems from overwhelm—should provide a good general antidote. And this is what we see.  Sometimes the needed boundaries are more external—to another person, to unnecessary life demands.  Sometimes they are more internal—to a critical inner parent, to a melodramatic part that makes mountains out of molehills. Note that such skills have specific pertinence for our time.  In the past, the major portion of external and internal boundaries (both for individuals and social systems) were culturally determined.  Learning to make boundaries more consciously represents one of the most important of new skills required by Cultural Maturity.

A more systemic understanding of Symptom, combined with the earlier concept of Capacitance, also helps alert us to the care and humility needed to successfully effect change. For example, it reminds the psychotherapist that efforts to promote growth and alleviate Symptoms, if not carefully crafted and timely in execution, may push the person even further beyond available Capacitance.I proposed earlier that one of the most important skills we can bring to international relations is a sensitivity to the necessary stages of economic and political development. Helping nations progress is important.  But just as important is avoiding developmentally inappropriate changes or attempts to change too much too fast. One of the great dangers of globalization is how dramatically it can stretch the Capacitance of social groups who may not be ready for the demands of a globalized world—with resulting symptomatic responses.

Given the diversity of forms Creative Symptoms can take, we could think of them equally well as a Whole-System Patterning Concept or Concepts of Creative Differentiation. To a degree this is so with any Whole-System Pattern Concept. (By referring to Aliveness and Capacitance as having diverse colors and flavors, I’ve already implied creative multiplicity.) But the concept of Creative Symptom makes such multiplicity even more explicit. It makes no sense without an appreciation for the fact of polarity. And the specific forms Creative Symptoms take follow directly from the way Patterning in Time and Patterning in Space mechanisms shape polar dynamics. People at different periods in their lives are most prone to certain kinds of Symptomatic responses (for example, the same individual who as a child may tend to become withdrawn, as an adult may become combative). And while an academic may rise above a perceived threat by intellectualizing, a corporate executive is more likely to do so by becoming excessively controlling, “lording over,” or an artist by keeping her “head in the clouds.”  Symptoms amplify and caricature underlying time- and space-relative creative mechanisms.

While the concept of Creative Symptom applies to systems at any stage of development, like Aliveness or Capacitance, it requires culturally mature thought to be understood deeply. Before now, such a notion would demand greater systemic awareness—greater comfort with uncertainty and complexity—than our available Capacitance would allow. The concept would itself only have created Symptoms.

We should find related, more systemic, notions of health and disease increasingly common at all creative scales. A notable example is the growing acceptance by physicians that “stress” can contribute not just to psychological discomfort but also to physical illness. What is stress? It is what we feel when our system is challenged to more than it can comfortably manage. It is Gary Larson’s overtaxed mosquito.

Symptom exercises: 

What kinds of situations are most apt to stretch you beyond your Capacitance?  With each, what kinds of protective responses are you most likely to utilize. What might be the most creative, healthful response if symptoms are noted.

Ask the same questions with regard to a larger system you are a part of—your family, your community, a business or other organization, an ethnic group, your profession.  Do this also for the country you live in and for the planet as a whole.