Interpersonal Rules That Undermine Your Relationships #2

When you feel threatened, gaining power over other people helps you feel safer.

Posted Feb 15, 2017

Rule #2 When you feel threatened or stressed, establishing power over other people helps you feel safer.

How do you react when you feel threatened or stressed in a relationship?  A long standing myth in our culture is that only the fittest members of society flourish and procreate and that a person's survival and safety is dependent on individual strength.  If that is your belief system than it makes sense that when you are threatened you can temporarily settle your churning gut by making yourself seem bigger and better. I saw a feline version of this just the other night at my house. One of our cats, Lil, Lil came face to face with our Golden Retriever. Usually our two cats slink around the house avoiding Ginger like they would a coyote.  When Lil, Lil found herself nose to nose with Ginger, she immediately puffed up like a blowfish, doubling her normal size.  In reality, her sympathetic nervous system automatically launched its piloerection process – straightening the hair follicles so her fur stood straight up. She looked bigger,  but really she was just full of air.  Humans do the same thing when we feel threatened, the actual manifestation of this stress response might look different – you might exaggerate your last accomplishment or mistakenly announce the amount of your last bonus at work.  The problem with this strategy is that you may appear bigger, stronger or faster than those around you but all you are actually doing is puffing yourself up.

Lisa Langhammer used with permission
Source: Lisa Langhammer used with permission

In a world where relationship is central, when you feel threatened or stressed, your natural inclination is to reach out to others.  In doing so, you activate a relatively new branch of your autonomic nervous system, the smart vagus nerve, which has evolved to modulate your stress response through human interaction and to keep you connected to a group. Within that group, people have different roles, but everyone is valued and respected and help keep the whole human community afloat. In a world where relationship is central interdependence and cooperation keep all members of a community safe.