patronestaff/Shutterstock
Source: patronestaff/Shutterstock

A recent New York Times article featured Kasia Urbaniak, a former dominatrix who teaches a sold-out course in New York called “Cornering Harvey: Verbal Self-Defense Training Camp for Women.”

A word “dominatrix” often evokes images of whips and chains. Kasia apparently does teach with a riding crop but the crux of her teachings comes down to a simple element of power dynamics that psychologists have studied for years. And, this secret element can be used in dealing with people in a wide array of situations beyond the bedroom.

The key to taking your power or giving it away comes down to a simple question: Where does your attention go?

In a recent article on the Male Gaze, I discussed the research on objectification that shows when women are made self-conscious (through catcalls and questioning), they become less agentic and less able to act for themselves; instead, they react and are reactive to the other. In other words, they take the submissive role—and are diminished to only responding and reacting to the dominant questioner.

In dominant-submissive relationships, the dominant person puts attention on the submissive person—and keeps their attention on the submissive person, keeping them feeling slightly off-kilter, so they stay on their toes and completely focused on their own internal experience. This makes it very difficult for the submissive person to take independent action because they are literally being held under the thumb of dominant person’s attention.

If you’re in a situation in which you’re made to feel uncomfortably self-conscious, try shifting your attention on to the person who’s making you feel self-conscious.  For example, if someone says, “You look so pretty today—oh now you seem kinda nervous.” Don’t say: “Why do you think so?” or “Screw you!” Instead put the attention back on them by saying, “Where did you get that shirt?” “Why are you standing there looking at me?” Anything to put the attention back on them and leave them feeling off-kilter instead of you!

In my research using mirrors to track attention, we’re studying the effects of inward and outward attention. We find that both perspectives can be effective (or ineffective) depending on the situation. 

Focusing inward is great when you want to tap into your feelings and intuitive knowing, and when you want to reveal yourself and build trust in relationships. But as Kasia points out, inward focus when being put on the spot creates a sense of submissiveness, reactivity, and unwanted vulnerability. Also, focusing on yourself when you are speaking or performing in public can lead to disaster. It’s much better to focus outward when leading groups because outward attention is necessary to “read the room.” Yet, if our attention is focused outward too much of the time, we can lose touch with how we’re feeling and project what’s going on inside of us onto others, which can lead to a wide array of misunderstandings. We may shift our attention outward by becoming engrossed in social media for example, which can lead us to forget ourselves for extended periods of time and serve as a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings inside.

It’s important to know how to shift your attention to match the situation. But in relationships taking the middle road of having your attention half in and half out might be not effective. If you want to stay in control, you have to put your attention on the other and keep it there. For instance, if you put your attention on someone to make a request, you need to keep your attention them. Don’t keep explaining why you want the thing or waver in your request if they don’t say yes immediately—because that puts the attention back on you.

Knowing where your attention is, and where it’s going, is an important element to feeling in control and at ease in any social situation. If you find yourself feeling confused or off-kilter in a conversation—check in and ask “Where’s my attention?”

Copyright 2018 Tara Well.

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