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Y2K / Post-Y2K Emotional Dynamics



Y2K as a Major Life Event by Warren Bone, explores the stages of emotional response to a great loss, in this case, our disrupted expectations regarding Y2K.

*CATCH Y2K* by Paul Gee, an exploration of Y2K as a classic "double-bind" phenomenon.


Y2K as a Major Life Event

by Warren Bone (excerpt from his longer January 2000 piece)

The Major Life Event Cycle-Where are you right now?

      Prepared for a War That Got Called Off
      Shock and Denial
      Anger and Resistance
      Questioning, Exploration, Bargaining
      Acceptance, Commitment

I saved this for last since it provides a framework for understanding the thoughts,
feelings and emotions some of us have had since the "Big Non-Event": mid-night
rollover into 2000.

It's like the whole world was indeed prepared for going to war. We had spent years
anticipating the very worst; preparing ourselves to contend with the worst. Getting ready
for this first terrible battle of a war that would possibly last for years, and would claim
many casualties. Our years of preparation and training for this were about to pay off!

Heavily armed and totally prepared for battle, the troops were in the trenches and
foxholes, and manning their duty stations. On the highest alert, worldwide. Ready for
the destruction to begin precisely at midnight.

There were literally millions of brave soldiers in a thousand armies, at the stroke of
midnight, holding their breath for the first report of that first devastating blow signaling
the beginning of the endall preparations and training completed, there was nothing
more to do now but wait.

We waited for that first big reportand we continued to waityet nothing was
happening to signal that the war had begun. Nothing. We continued to wait anxiously
through an entire 24-hour period for some sign of what we expected.

Then it happened.

A communiqué was issued advising that the war had been called off!

After all the work we had done to get ready for this, they now tell us it's all overwe
could go home now. There's not going to be a war today!

Everyone was celebrating. Except the troops who were prepared to fight the war. They
were emotionally drained, and not yet ready to celebrate. Why?

You see, as odd as it might seem, when troops individually-as people, not as an
army-have mentally prepared for the battle, even to the point that they each have
submitted to the fact that they might even die in this battle, at the moment they learn
that "it's all over, the war's been called off," a great disappointment takes over
immediately. A letdown. Yet some relief. But certainly it takes time to replace those
strange emotions with happiness, and celebration.

Funny how our minds work, isn't it.

A "Major Life Event" is anything that significantly (greatly) impacts us emotionally. The
death of a loved one is the prime example. Somehow we learn to "deal with it."

Other examples include divorce, losing a job, serious illness, to name but a few.
Anytime our emotions are heavily jolted because of some type Major Life Event, we
experience several different emotions in "dealing with it."

We are now dealing with another type of Major Life Event. To many of us the "Year
2000 War" has been called off, and we even wonder if it has just been postponed.

Not to imply that this event in our lives compares in severity to the loss of a loved one,
but the feelings and emotions will be the same, only to a much lesser degree.

The cycle outlined at the beginning of this discussion explains the various emotions
we go through when we have experienced one of these devastating blows. People
going through this experience do not necessarily start at the beginning of the cycle
and progress through each phase sequentially until finally arriving at the end of the
cycle. Rather, we can move from one phase into any other at any time, jumping
between various feelings and then coming back to where we started. One can even be
in more than one phase at the same time. Some people skip over some emotions
altogether, and may even jump from one all the way to the end, and stay there.

Most times, however, most of us will progress generally through the cycle, spending
some time in each phase, perhaps momentarily visiting another, but eventually
completing the cycle.

It is helpful to know where you are, since others are in this cycle with you. Knowing
where you are right now with your emotions helps you to understand where you are
headed. A road map, if you will.

First thing that usually happens is that we are Shocked that it even happened at all!
This is immediately accompanied by Denial. "I'm shocked! Stunned! I can't believe
this has happened! This is just not happening to me!)

Then you will find yourself moving to Anger and Resistance. "Ok, I know it happened,
but I'm mad as hell about it! (But I still can't believe this really did happen.) But it did
and I'm mad about it.)

Next you will question things. Questioning, Exploring the facts, Bargaining with
yourself. "Ok, now I'm no longer mad, and I know it did happen, but how in the world
did it happen? I wonder? What if? Ok, I can deal with this a little bit now. I'll just try
to figure it out."

Depression is also likely at about this point since you've accepted the facts that it did
happen, and you've gotten over your anger enough to begin thinking rationally about
it. "I'm really sad now, because of what happened. What did I do wrong? What did I do
to deserve this? I've lost so much. I'm really depressed."

Finally we are able to move into Acceptance and Commitment. "I'm feeling better
now, no longer depressed. All this did happen and now I accept that as a fact, and I'm
going on with my lifeI'm getting on board that train! I do feel positive about things
again! I'm ok."

Don't feel bad if you reach that final phase and later revisit some previous territory. Just
make sure you find your way back to the end again!


by Paul Gee


I have been trying to make sense of Y2k

For the year and half preceding year 2000 I felt like I was living in
some bizarre, slightly surrealistic world. During that time I did many
hundreds of hours of research. I found that Y2K was presented both as a
serious problem - one which could logically have disastrous consequences -
and at the same time as a trivial matter of little or no significance. I
felt like I was Yossarian in the book 'Catch 22' trying to have a rational
conversation with Major Major! It was impossible because reality shifted. It
was impossible for Yossarian to argue with his superiors because they were
committed to the twisted logic of what psychotherapists call the double
bind. I felt something akin to this in the context of Y2K.

Double binds.

The psychology of double binds was explored in the 1960s by the
psychiatrist R.D Laing. It was his thesis that the roots of mental
illness, particularly schizophrenia, arose from the child's failed attempt
to make rational sense of parental mixed messages, or double binds. A
parent might say to a child 'gives us a hug', then, as the child responds,
the parent freezes and the child withdraws. Then the parent says 'Oh don't
you want a hug?'. The child is left confused because the verbal and
non-verbal messages do not agree. There is no rational response. Any
response would be wrong

Why does a parent give out double binds? According to the theory, the parent
is holding two inner parts of the self - beliefs, attitudes, and feelings -
which are contradictory. E.g., 'I ought to love my child: I find closeness
scary'. This splitting of the self into two systems is largely a defensive
measure which stops the individual from bringing into consciousness an
awareness which would be scary or unacceptable. Often one half of the
split is kept out of awareness - in this case 'I find closeness scary'.
The child's failure to respond is rationalised as, 'Oh don't you want
a hug?'

Now, double binds can be used deliberately to control others - as
awesomely illustrated by Orwell's depiction of 'doublethink' in 1984. But
mixed messages need not be deliberate: often - perhaps mostly - they come
from a place of fear and are out of awareness. A mixed message is given
out because consciousness is split into two systems. This splitting, at its
most simplistic, helps us to blot out part of the whole picture: the part
we find most uncomfortable. But splitting can work in more subtle ways. We
can keep both split parts in consciousness, but blot out the logical link
between them. Again, by doing this, we do not need to see or feel the
implications of our full awareness. It is fear that feeds the split.

Split consciousness

So what of Y2K? I had a sense of a weird split in consciousness in our
culture over the issue. It was perhaps most obvious in the way the media
reported the matter. Serious evidence, when it was reported, was reported
blandly, or in a trivial manner, with no attempt at analysis. The mixed
message was 'this matter is serious, but not serious'.  There was no
investigative journalism, no high profile documentaries, no serious
analysis, no hard questioning of government or business leaders. There was
no attempt to explore the issue in any depth, perhaps because this would
have exposed the duplicity of the double bind.

It seems to me that the business world also split its consciousness over
Y2K. On the one hand the issue was presented as not just serious, but very
serious problem, so serious that billions of pounds needed to be poured into
remediation projects. This was not some knee-jerk reaction, but a
considered policy based on our understanding of the problem at the time.
The millennium bug was sufficiently unpredictable that any non-millennium
compliant business or industry was considered to be seriously at risk.
Industry experts from many different fields agreed with this analysis.
Yet at the same time Y2K was held as trivial: not by challenging the
theory or offering a better one, but simply by ignoring the implications of
the theory.

Global interconnectedness

The most deeply uncomfortable implications of the theory, it seems to me,
came into focus when the global aspect was considered. The theory - that
any non-compliant industry was at risk - logically meant that every industry
in the world was potentially vulnerable. Since in a global economy, all
industries and nations are interdependent, no nation or business could fix
the problem in isolation. This logically meant that the problem, as it was
understood, was insoluble except by the co-operation of the whole world. And
it was exactly this - the global dimension - which was dropped so thoroughly
from Y2K thinking. Yet this was surely the crux of the problem.

And it was no minor problem. By mid-1998 it was obvious that the whole
world could not achieve full compliance: there were not the time, expertise
or resources around the world to fix all the systems. Rather than analysing
the significance of this, we ignored it: we allowed it to slide out of
consciousness. Economic forecasters, the stock market, government policy
makers and, not least of all, the media, blanked out this part of the
problem. While national moves towards compliance were were seen as important
achievements, there was rarely any significance given to the fact that most
of the world (on whom we depended economically) were months, if not
years, behind Britain in the remediation efforts.

It could be argued that there was a good psychological reason for this.
Since we had ruled out global co-operation, the problem we were faced with
had become insoluble, given the terms in which we understood it. We could
not avoid the risk of disruption which the theory implied, simply by fixing
our own systems. Yet we continued to celebrate our own companies' lumbering
moves towards millennium readiness, as though this were somehow solving the
problem. It was like the first class passengers, in a badly damaged ship,
being told by the captain that holes under their part of the ship were
almost repaired, and the passengers relaxing as though the danger were over!

The government

So much for the way the media and the business world split their
consciousness over Y2K: what about the government?  Now the government, it
seems to me, incorporated the business world's false logic.  They also
added another layer of contradiction which came from their need to control.
Because they had an interest in seeking to control public reaction, the
message to the public was nearly always 'Every thing is fine - just check
your video recorder.' They wanted to allay panic. At the same time, the
message to the business world was quite the opposite. Y2K was presented as
a very serious threat. Whilst the public were being told that rumours of
possible disruptions were a complete 'myth', businesses were encouraged to
make detailed contingency plans because of the possibility of 'severe

Here was double think at its most bizarre, more reminiscent of Stalinist
Russia than so-called free democracy. Even more bizarre and alarming was
the fact that the utter contradiction went almost unchallenged by the media.

But perhaps psychologically this is not surprising, as the media were
already committed to their own brand of double think But it was not just
the mainstream media which side-stepped the issue. From the far right to
the far left there was almost complete silence. Alternative press - journals
such as New Internationalist - gave hardly a mention to the issue. Greenpeace
were silent. It was as though as a whole culture, we had somehow switched
off our awareness of these contradictions.

Whole culture

It seems to me that this split in consciousness I have been describing did
indeed infuse our whole culture. The logical inconsistencies, the double
binds of the government and the business world, had become invisible to
most of us. This phenomenon - a culture's capacity to collude with mixed
messages - is not an unknown phenomenon:  it is what enables a
dictatorial leader to convince a population that by taking complete power,
he is actually giving freedom to everyone. Orwell's Animal Farm is a text
book study of this. It seems to me that unconscious collusion of this kind
is to a greater or lesser extent present in any culture: but the homogeneity
of the response - or lack of response - to Y2K was remarkable. Was this
perhaps a measure of the (unconscious) fear the issue evoked in us: did it
touch a cultural taboo?

Those of us who chose to challenge the inconsistencies which surrounded
Y2K were faced with the full force of the double binds. Effectively we
were outside the logic system of our culture and there was no place for
dialogue. Y2K was not discussed except in a trivial or jokey manner. Efforts
at serious discussion were stonewalled, ridiculed or attacked. The
consistency of this response was striking. Many of us researched and read
what experts around the world were saying. The jigsaw pieces did not fit.
Rarely if at all, did we see the basic theoretic understanding of Y2K
challenged. Over and over again it was presented as an unknown risk, and a
serious threat. And over and over again we saw the implications of this
theory being ignored. This was a profoundly crazy-making situation to be

It could be argued that as a culture we actually 'knew' the experts were
wrong, that we knew that Y2K did not pose a significant threat. This is a
nice theory but not convincing to me.  If the 'all hype' hypothesis was a
serious rational position, rather than a defensive emotional response as I
tend to believe it was, then there should logically have been an outcry at
the huge waste of public and corporate funds - literally billions of pounds.
But government and corporate policy on Y2K was not challenged: not by the
media, not by pressure groups, not by the government opposition, not by the
business world.

If the dismissal of Y2K as trivial was based on a rational assessment, then
where was the theory to support that conclusion? Where was the risk
assessment model which demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that we could
safely ignore the whole issue? I did not find one. Certainly the 'bump in
the road' scenario was always a possible outcome. But so was a catastrophic
one. Y2K was from the beginning an unknown risk. We could not model it
accurately, nor could we assess the risk: we simply did not have the
theoretical tools. What we were trying to assess was the influence of a
potentially large but indeterminate number of errors in a very complex
global interdependent system.  It was like trying to guess with certainty
what the weather would be like a week tomorrow!

Our responses to Y2K

I have been arguing that there was a split in consciousness in our culture.
I am too close to claim to be able to make an objective analysis. My guess
is that what was going on was quite complex.  I am also well aware that it
is possible, indeed easy, to project one's own pathology onto the world and
then see the world as crazy. In matters of great importance it is easy to
be mistaken.  One of my reasons for trying to understand the whole Y2K
issue more deeply is to help me come to understand, and come to terms
with, my experience during that period. This writing is only a first
tentative step in that direction.

I want to finish by going back to the example of the child responding to
the double binds of her mother, to see what the parallels there might be
with Y2K. You will remember that the child, in the example I gave, was
(verbally) invited to have a hug, but was then (nonverbally) rebuffed 
(the contradiction); and finally told: 'Oh don't you want a hug?'. What
were the child's choices in that situation, and how does that compare to the
choices we made individually and as a culture to Y2K?

A child who is faced by double binds in a family situation - effectively the
child's whole culture - has few options.  The number one defensive ploy
is to cut out one of the mixed messages. The child does not 'hear' the
mother say 'give us a hug'; or alternatively, the child responds, and seeks
to ignore the fact that the hug is cold; is not really a show of
affection.  The advantage to this psychological strategy is that the child
does not have to handle the parental contradictions. The cost is the
repression of sensitivity : the child must blot out a part of her awareness
of the world in order to cope with the contradictions. Essentially the
child in some way colludes with the parents splitting of reality.

It seems to me that this was the response to Y2K which most of our culture
chose to take. It worked out to be a good strategy in many ways and
certainly got us through. There are possible down sides. A child who adopts
this strategy copes, is a coper. At least appears to. Later in life
problems start to emerge. The adult does not have the awareness and
sensitivity to be able to make wise choices. There is an inner tension in
the individual which may not appear as mental illness - perhaps just
depression, or physical illness. Our cultural response to Y2K turned out to
be effective, but was it altogether healthy? What problems might we be
storing up for the future I wonder?

There is another way in which a child may respond to parental double binds.
Where the child is not able to blot out one of the contradictory messages,
perhaps because of the sensitivity of the child, or because of the severity
of the contradiction, the child is typically either paralysed with a sense
of shame (I am 'a bad girl' for not responding to my mother's hug) or
feels overwhelming rage and frustration at the feeling of being trapped. If
she makes a correct analysis of her experience - 'Your hugs don't feel nice'
or 'You don't mean what you say' - she is ridiculed, attacked or stonewalled.

A sensitive child's attempt to handle a severe double bind can be a deeply
wounding experience. These are one of the roots of schizophrenia according
to some psychotherapeutic theorists (notably Laing). The child's sense of
reality is not affirmed. There is no solid ground upon which to stand. It
is likely that the child (in Laing's terminology) will start to split into
an outer 'false self' - the part which seeks to conform with parental
expectations; and a'true self' - a private inner world of the child's
thoughts, feelings and phantasies which are not constrained by impossible
demands. The danger of course, is that this inner world, separated from a
rational environment, risks becoming ungrounded: mere phantasy.


There are some parallels here to my own response to Y2K. Although I faced
it with as much rationality and courage as I could, I also felt at times
both rage and and a sense of shame, overwhelming at times: rage at the risk
we were putting the world to, at the indifference of most people, at the
utter confusion of the mixed messages; and shame at my inability to find a
response which felt wholesome, at my fear, at my inability to talk to
others, at my inability make a real difference to the problem. I felt
deeply about Y2K. I suspect that the depth of my emotional response was
compounded by the opening up old childhood wounds around double messages. I
already had a history of not knowing whom to trust.

In the adult part of me, I found that I had a great deal of courage: I faced
fully the possible scenarios, and understood - not just intellectually, but
emotionally - what these meant. It took courage to speak out. And I took
action. In 1998 I did a great deal of campaigning. I believed then that we
would tackle it as a whole world problem. By 1999 no action seemed
adequate. I felt very stuck. By the middle of 1999 I had largely cut off
defensively to a private inner world of concern and fear, which I shared
with a very few others, and an outer 'unreal' (or should I say surreal)
world of normality to get through the every day activities. (cf Laing's
false self and real self) It was these last 6 months which felt most like a
nightmare: I found myself becoming ungrounded and withdrawn.

In some ways it was the unreality - the surrealism - of the experience
which I found most terrifying. Certainly the future was scary, but at least
it felt real in the sense that I was facing a real unknown and my responses
of fear, anxiety and indeed courage felt real.  It was the complete
absence of any kind of concern from the vast majority of people which I
found so hard to bear! In order to be part of my culture I felt I had
somehow to pretend, to collude with the pretence that everything was fine.
There was no common feeling of mutual support and concern, like there was in
the 60 and 70's when the awareness of the possible devastation of nuclear
missiles came fully into awareness. Y2K was simply invisible: a non-issue.

The irony - and this is a profound irony - is that what we did as a world
was in hindsight right. Somehow as a world we stumbled through to doing
exactly what was needed. Was there some invisible hand guiding us? Maybe
there was. I suspect that once we had reached the end of 1998, the approach
the world took - 'close your eyes and hope for the best!' - was possibly the
only path. It was really too late to do much else. And it got us through.
My question is: as a culture have we learnt anything from this experience?
Right now, I think not, but maybe that is too early to tell. Perhaps it
the job of historians to bring the full picture into cultural awareness and
to ask the questions we would not ask at the time.

My next question is: Do those of use who have been through this suffering -
of facing the unknown of Y2K with eyes open - have anything to offer; is
there any wisdom to be gleaned from the experience? I leave this as
an open question. I have some thoughts on this, but really I am still too
close to the experience to be able to have anything useful to say. But I
would like to hear your thoughts on this if you are ready to put them
into words.

This is my first attempt to make some sense of Y2K. It far too complex an
issue to do any more than give a few broad brush strokes in a short piece of
writing like this. I am sure Yossarian - the hero of Catch 22 - would have a
few terse comments to make about it! I should be interested to know if what
I have written strikes any resonance in your experience and understanding of