My previous post addressed why intimate relationships fail, focusing on the lack of fulfilment. However, it is not just intimate relationships that have anxiety and stress associated with them. As much as 15% of the population will report social anxiety during their lifetime, and its prevalence is increasing.
On the surface, it is easy to say that people are experiencing social anxiety because they are afraid of other people’s judgements. They might be afraid that they aren’t attractive enough, intelligent enough, interesting enough, cool enough, accomplished enough, or any other sense of lack. This is probably true, and these thoughts will definitely fuel social anxiety. Why do people feel these feelings? These negative self-perceptions are stemming from an incorrect reflection of the self found in the other. Why?
There is a hidden dynamic at play.
There is a destructive dynamic present in any situation with a power imbalance. Stick with me here, because by the end of this, you will see how it relates to all kinds of relationships.
I’m going to use the doctor-patient dynamic because it is personally one of the most terrifying interactions I can face. The reason for my fear could be explained by a lifetime of mental and emotional trauma at the hands of uncaring and judgemental doctors, but I don’t think that is the true root of the fear I think there is a core issue that creates stress in the majority of relationships, and that is reciprocity.
I believe the fear stems from a relational imbalance.
When I am required to engage in the doctor-patient dynamic, the relationship is not a natural one. A “natural relationship” would be one of mutual connection and sharing, like that found in the best friendships. In a natural relationship, each person gets to know the other in their wholeness. Each person knows the others strengths and weaknesses, failures and successes, and they have both given of themselves to the other equally. When one friend asks the other for help, the other gives gladly, because they have already received and know that their giving builds a reciprocity that creates a more and more beautiful friendship with every day they share.
The doctor-patient dynamic is unable to create this ideal natural relationship because a reciprocal relationship is not permitted. This is seen in two key aspects:
- A patient can’t get to know the doctor personally, so they can’t offer them any of the kindness or support that they would usually share in a natural relationship. This makes the patient the “needy” and the doctor the “giver”.
- A patient only sees a doctor when they are sick, so they have to play the role of a weak and needy person.This makes the patient a one-dimensional person in the doctor’s mind. This means the doctor has no idea who the person actually is in their wholeness, creating a false concept of the patient in the doctor’s mind.
As a patient, you are not allowed to develop a mutual reciprocity with the doctor.
It is considered inappropriate to try to get to know the doctor, or to offer them any personal help or gifts. Instead you are required to be in a one-sided dynamic where you must humbly beg for help, hoping that the doctor likes you enough to believe and take pity on you, because they hold all the power to relieve your suffering. You cannot engage in building a relationship which would demonstrate to them how strong, motivated, capable, and generous you normally are in life. You must remain in the subordinate begging role, and so you necessarily become a weak and needy person in the doctor’s mind. So if the doctor then decides that you seem like someone who lies for attention, drugs, or exaggerates symptoms because “you are weak”, there is nothing you can do. Time has proven that there is literally no way to communicate that proves you are being totally honest and accurate in your communication, it is fully dependent on the doctor’s perception of you only. If you had been able to have a natural relationship, built on equal give and take, then the conception of who the patient is would be more accurate, and their actual needs would be much more obvious.
A doctor can’t develop a reciprocal relationship with a patient.
Let’s also see things from the doctor’s perspective. No matter how often you see your patients, they are always complaining about being in pain. They always exaggerate how much pain they are in, and they always claim their pain isn’t controlled by over-the-counter medicines. Yet they don’t seem to be in pain, because they are able to speak calmly and clearly, or they have the energy to be dramatic in how they express pain. You feel so drained by the fact that every 15 minutes you have another low energy person asking you to give them something, while no one is coming to give you anything. You just wish people would toughen up, take care of themselves, and stop bothering you. You know most people are just exaggerating, wanting attention, or to get high, and you wish they would stop taking time away from the few people who are actually sick. You don’t want to go into work and face all these weak and needy people any more, because you just can’t face their sad or angry reactions when you don’t give them what they want. Thus your perception of your patients is skewed because you only see them when they are weak and needy. Yet you can’t change this, because it would be inappropriate to try and make a friendship with your patients, even though that is exactly what is needed.
The fear comes from being powerless to change the false perceptions of the other because of the relational dynamic.
I am terrified to interact with people in these imbalanced situations,because it is the dynamic of the situation itself that creates the problems. There is nothing I can do within the dynamic to change the other’s perception of me, no matter how false it is. The problems resulting from the dynamic are only worsened through more attempts to resolve them within the dynamic. The more the “needy” tries to communicate their needs, the more the “giver” becomes disgusted and dismissive. Because the dynamics of the situation prevent the roles from reversing, the relationship gets further and further away from a natural reciprocal relationship.
The only cure for these problems is a balancing of give and take through knowing the other in their wholeness.
If the giver could directly experience how strong, capable, loving, generous, interesting, artistic, gentle, intelligent and all-around special the needy person is, they would no longer see them as a simplistic “needy ” caricature. They would instead be very glad to be able to help them in their weakest moments, because they would see that these moments are just a small aspect of their whole being. If the needy could have a reciprocal relationship with the giver, they could give them all the kindness, understanding, and support the giver needs. Then the giver would be filled with love, life, and joy, which would give them all the passion and energy to continue giving to all that need of them.
The destructive dynamic can be found in almost all relationships.
Relationships where someone is required to play a subordinate role are everywhere:
- Parent & child
- Teacher & student
- Boss & employee
- Customer & server
- Jailer & prisoner
- Head of State & citizen
- Abuser & abused (unbalanced intimate relationships)
- Taker & giver (unbalanced friendships)
The person occupying the subordinate role cannot change the perception of the other from within the dynamic. Attempts to do so only further degradates the subordinate in the mind of the other. The powerlessness to change the balance of the relationship, or alter the perception of the other to reflect wholeness, creates a deep hopeless pain. This pain creates a cycle of ever increasing separation from, and simplification of, the other. After a while, each person starts to form their sense of self based on the reflection they find in the other. The subordinate starts to believe that the image of the other is who they are, while the other swells a false sense of power and prowess. One believes they are a stupid loser who can never be good enough to be in power, and the other believes they are a genius achiever who has rightfully earned their position of power over the weak.
What is the solution?
I could end this article with just the explanation above, and not delve into trying to offer solutions to such a deeply embedded feature of human society. However, I must give hope.
The first thing is to recognise that you have many relationships, and each has a different power balance within it. In each relationship, your position is likely a result of pure chance and other arbitrary factors out of your control. Thus you should realise that your position in them is not a reward or punishment based on your actual worth as a whole being.
Second, remember that the self you find reflected in these relationships is a product of the dynamics at play. You are treated in certain ways because of the false perceptions of the other, which were created by the dynamics of the situation. If you had a balanced natural relationship with this person, then you would likely find a totally different reflection of your self in them.
Thirdly, if you can recognise this dynamic at play, you can choose not to fuel it further. This can be done by understanding that certain forms of communication are naturally favoured by the subordinate (pleading, self-deprecation, supplication) and other (dismissal, self-aggrandizement, imposition), so you can choose to remain more neutral in your communication and reactions. By understanding that the dynamic is the cause of the tension, and that the other is likely playing into their role unconsciously, you are able to relieve some of the stress of engaging in the dynamic.
Fourthly, if you are in a position of power, you can find ways to foster a more balanced and reciprocal relationship with those subordinate to you. The subordinate person is not stupid, weak, or deserving of supplication to you. The subordinate person is powerless to change the relationship with you because of the dynamics at play, not because of any personal failing. As the person in a position of power, you can choose to either be blown up with false ego power that will be lost sooner than you realise, or you can foster a more balanced dynamic with your fellow humans that favours reciprocity.
This explains the reasons why people want power.
People don’t like the reflection of themselves as weak and subordinate, and they don’t like the feeling of powerlessness to change their situation. Thus they want to “be on top” simply so they can adopt the personal identity that they are strong, intelligent, and all-around better than others. It’s not just to feel powerful, it is to escape the opposite “weak” identity.
Each side of this dynamic needs to seize the truth;
we are all equal.
Those in power can discover a greater identity than “hated oppressor”; benevolent leader. They can seek ways to embrace others in their fullness, reduce their dictatorial power in the dynamic, and create a better world for all beings. The legacy they could leave as a powerful dictator pales in comparison to a legacy of a benevolent leader of the people.
Those in subordinate roles can stop believing that those in power deserve their power due to some special abilities or qualities. Those with power are there through circumstance, and they can fall from those positions in the blink of an eye. They deserve no more respect or reverence than any other person. Remove this illusion and those in power will be far less emboldened. With this illusion gone, it will be much easier for all subordinates to unite in withdrawing their support of harmful power structures.
This relief from power dynamics is realised when each person relinquishes their desire to rule over others, and chooses reciprocity instead. It starts with you.
Thank you for reading. Please follow for more insightful articles.