24. Status Conflict

We Act in Uncivil Ways to Increase Our Serotonin

Humans, like other primates, are constantly testing each other in an often unconscious attempt to either raise their serotonin levels or reduce the other person’s serotonin in an effort to become dominant. I think of this as the “struggle for serotonin” and it is going on in schools, homes, and workplaces throughout the world. Putting others down can give us a little boost and this can become addictive and sadistic. It is clearly not psychological healthy to use our friends, family members, and coworkers to combat our own mental angst.

We Provoke Each Other Constantly

When I was very young my mother taught me the expression: “he’s just out to get your goat.” This helped me understand from a young age that it is common for people to say or do things, just to “get a rise” out of you or try to make you lose your cool. Its true. Many people try to activate the other person’s amygdala, sympathetic system, and inferiority instincts in order to control them. In fact, a large proportion of social interactions revolve around people testing each other’s composure with jokes, slights, and provocations. When my mom told me “don’t let him get your goat,” it communicated to me that it was my responsibility to safeguard my own temper, and ignore people’s attempts to fluster me.

Etymologists believe that the expression comes from the once common practice of keeping goats with race horses. Race horses are high-strung animals. This is due, in part, to the unnatural levels of strain placed on their bodies. Goats were often used as companion animals to help keep race horses calm. They have even been placed with dairy cows to help lower their stress levels. Goats naturally have a very low outward expression of stress. They are not the most beautiful animals, they are not the smartest, and they certainly are not the biggest, or most dominant, but they are great at keeping their cool. I think this should be a lesson for us; we don’t have to be the best in order to be the calmest. In fact, we might not be the dominant individual in our group, but we can still be so well-composed that it inspires everyone else.

Many physical traits in animals exist to convey social dominance. These include plumage coloration in Harris sparrows, horn-size in mountain sheep, greying in the mountain gorilla, and square jaws in humans. Most people think that imposition, size, musculature, and physical strength is what creates a dominant human. But it is emotional strength that makes people dominant. Often people with great physical strength are accorded respect which in turn helps them build confidence and emotional strength. However, the physically weakest person can certainly be the most dominant if they have control over their emotions. Emotional strength is largely the ability to exhibit resilience in the face of negativity. It is the only status symbol that is universally, albeit unconsciously, recognized as more important than physical size, reputation, or money.

Aggressive behavior starts when someone feels inferior, and then tries to fight that feeling like a subjugated monkey. It is brought about by emotional sensitivity and weakness. Children that are high in rejection sensitivity are more likely to be bullied. Children that do not easily feel rejected are much less likely to be victimized. Envisioning yourself as the underdog or the victim is very counterproductive because it lowers your serotonin and invites further abuse. Dominant animals have thick skin, are the last to feel rejected, and so are the last to be rejected.

Treat everyone like you have known them forever and like you can’t easily be hurt by them. See them as playful monkeys that are bluff charging, play sneering, pretend scratching, and feign biting. Only the primates with low serotonin are hurt emotionally by rough play. All of those things that people used to do that made you angry, reframe them as simply rough and tumble monkey play.

We Contradict Each Other Compulsively

If you really analyze the way people speak to each other it is almost shocking how much they contradict each other. For many listeners the first thing that pops into their mind is a way to gainsay, or poke holes in the speaker’s point. They are looking for exceptions to what the other person is saying. These are often red herrings, meant to stifle and trip up the person that is trying to make the point. Constantly playing devil’s advocate is dysfunctional. Rather, we should be looking for what is right in what others are saying in order to provide support. This is much more constructive. In the words of Nick Bostrom this involves resisting “the temptation to instantaneously misunderstand each new idea by assimilating it with the most similar-sounding cliché available in (your) cultural larder.” When others try to shoot you down try to see what is right about what they are saying, but point out to them how it doesn’t necessarily make what you were saying wrong. Do this with peace in your heart. Also remember that you don’t have to get defensive when someone hastily comes up with an irrelevant exception to a statement that you made.

Most people are obnoxiously argumentative, and disputatious contrarians. They often are not even emotionally invested in the contradictions that they place against you. They are merely testing your limits and trying to force you down into the lower echelons. Take their objections as requests for elaboration, and be happy to give them more details. Reframing people’s intrusions and giving them the benefit of the doubt is what the emotionally strong person does.

Never Fail a Confidence Test

People’s jokes and snide comments are “confidence tests,” to assess how cool you are under pressure and how you deal with conflict. This is like a dog’s first bark. It is a probe used to assess your level of composure. The strong person will not feel negative emotions when provoked. These tests exclaim, “I am pretty sure that I am superior to you, so I am going to say something rude, what are you going to do about it?” If you don’t do anything about it, you fail the test, your rank will drop, and others in the group will try to test you in the same way. If you laugh nervously, or go along with it others will also see this as failing the test. Flinging out an insult or getting defensive or angry are other ways to fail or get yourself excluded from the group.

To quote Schopenhauer: “Every reproach can hurt only to the extent that it hits the mark.” Thus when you lose your cool, it becomes clear that the person’s comment resonated with you. The only surefire way to win is to react assertively, and to refrain from showing any hint of negative emotion in response to your confidence being tested. The best way to do this is to see these tests as what they are, monkey business that is not worthy of your stress response. The absolute best way to deal with confidence tests is to treat them as invitations to play, as will be discussed in the next chapter. The second best way is simply to retain your composure.

Recompose Yourself When You Feel Disrespected

Recomposing yourself is a powerful way to correct other people’s transgressions. When you hear someone say something that has crossed a boundary ensure that:

  1. You are breathing deeply through your nose.
  2. Your eyes are not squinted and your eyebrows are not raised
  3. You are not sneering at all
  4. Pull your chin toward your Adam’s apple
  5. Retract your neck and lower your shoulders

Fear, anger, and competitiveness make us spend our personal power. When our chi-like or prana-like bioenergy is wasted on negative emotions, we have none left to improve our lives or give to others. Conserve yours.

I used to look nice and act tough. Like most people, I was doing it backwards. Instead we want to look tough and act nice. Playing submissive nonverbally, and dominant verbally makes you a servant to the hierarchical game. Rather, you want to be tightfisted with your nonverbals, but easy going with your words. This gives the impression that you are a well-composed team player, rather than an anxious and alienated loner.

We get mad at other people for “making” us lose our composure. However, we should be angry at our own unconscious rules for what makes us tense certain body parts. Once we change those rules other people can’t upset us. When I get mad at something that someone did, I tell myself that I am just mad because my own rules caused my breath to shorten, my nasopharynx to tighten, and my eyes to wince. They didn’t do these things to me, I did.

Breathing with the diaphragm will automatically create the right mindset for dealing with conflict. It will cause conflict to pass right through you without impacting you. Paced breathing will give you more control over your behavior, quell your anger, and allow you to de-escalate potentially explosive situations. Misunderstandings that would have been major crises will now just be events in your day.

The only way I show others that they did something that I didn’t like is by making my face calmer. They always get the point. When a problem dog is ignored it usually calms down in seconds. When people are being abusive , but they see that you are unflustered and uninterested, it will take them down a peg and stop reinforcing their behavior. Literally shrug it off. When they see you shrug they will realize that they are powerless to upset you.

The best way to cultivate inner freedom is to learn to relax around people that are petty, rude, and aggressive. You will find that the need to defend yourself will diminish until there is nothing they can do to aggravate you. Make them realize that they don’t have the power to bite, scratch, or sully you with their words. Chimpanzees fling feces to denigrate one another. Every time someone says something hurtful they are just flinging feces. Lucky for us, words can’t stain our clothes.

No matter what, if you have more composure you wil win the argument because you look like you don’t care too much. If they can tell that they have no access to your pain body they will stop. You want people to be able to sense that you don’t play games, and are not interested in their antics.They will recognize that they cannot blame you for not being interested in shenanigans. You want to communicate: “we are not playing that game where we scruitinize the things we say to each other for slights, trust me, I am simply not going to intentionally offend you.”

Most of the men and women that I was friends with in my twenties wanted to hurt me and see me in pain. At least a part of them did. They were just doing what their instincts, and environment programmed them to do. People want to help people that subordinate themselves to further subordinate themselves. It is not sadism, until they realize that it is sadism. Regrettably I have noticed myself unconsciously help people play their subordinate role and even push them down into that role. I try to catch myself. Sometimes that is the best that we can do.

It is a completely normal response for other people to resist your efforts to become more assertive. Roll with any resistance.

Underreact to Their Offenses

Aside from the struggle for serotonin, your average person acts like a jerk because they are in pain. They offend in a poor functioning attempt to hide the outward manifestation of their trauma. It is like they are trying to show us: “I wouldn’t be acting like this if I were scared, would I?” In trying to be strong, they become offensive. Because they see self-handicapping as nice, they think that when they are not self-handicapping they have to be mean. This is a fundamental social error. You can be the strongest, most ambitious version of you, with zero negativity.

People provoke each other because they want to compare bodily pain. When someone contradicts you with a trifling point they are really looking to see how your face, voice, and breathing will change due to this new stressor. When they make a rude joke, or an untoward comment they want to see how you will be able to tolerate it physiologically. They are expecting to take your breath away from you.

When someone is rude to you and you are not rude back, you take away their momentum. A strategy that they may then use is to pretend as if your response to them was rude or sarcastic. They do this in another attempt to make it seem that you are the one who is quick to anger. The best response is to continue to keep your cool. Don’t get bullied into becoming angry. Take their harassment in stride. Or simply side step it; you don’t even have to acknowledge their transgression. I believe it is our right as humans to completely ignore other people’s abusive behaviors as long as we don’t do it in anger, and as long as we are willing and happy to engage in another topic or activity with the person.

Ignore rudeness. Without brooding or becoming sullen, simply don’t say anything. When you do this people immediately realize that you are choosing not to respond because they put you in a position where you didn’t have any options to respond in a nice way. Give them another chance, whenever they want. You can also ignore the rude part of what they said and continue addressing only the positive or intellectual side of their comment. When you do this skillfully they will realize that you gave them a pass and they will respect you for it. Even if they don’t mention it, people realize, “wow he could have taken that opportunity to strike back or discredit me and yet chose not to.”

Let the other person bluster and be brash and make no attempt to do the same. Because you don’t counter their display, they will think that they have beaten you. Then when you act cheerful, not attempting to win or lose, but oblivious to the dominance game in general they will go through a series of emotions. First they will feel like they have lost, then they will try to win again to make up for it, then eventually they will accept that it is your intention to act as equals.

Conflict Activity #1: A Relaxed Argument
The next time someone is critical or accusatory prepare yourself for a fully relaxed argument. This involves asserting yourself using calm, cool logic without getting offended and without escalating the conversation in any way.
1)         Do not raise your voice.
2)         Do not fake smile, smirk, or laugh.
3)         Do not say anything sarcastic.
4)         Breathe calmly through your nose for the duration.
5)         Present your side of the argument in a calm matter-of-fact way.
6)         Show empathy for their feelings
7)         If the other person escalates the conflict act in ways that deescalate it.
8)         Create awareness of your impulses to become angry or turn it personal.
9)       Do not attack them, or try to shift blame towards them.
10)       Feel free to offer an apology for what you did wrong.

Can you imagine negotiating with an angry person without using either appeasement or aggression? What would that look like? Many spiritual teachers say that a sign of someone who is enlightened is that they cannot be provoked or argued with. They are open to discussion and debate, of course, but not an argument. Don’t search other people’s words for things to be offended by. Don’t scrutinize voice mails, text messages, or behavior for threats or insult. Almost every argument is just the clashing of pain bodies.

Don’t Punish Because People Don’t Sympathize with Your Aggression

No one is going to perceive your anger as entirely valid as long as it is direct toward them. Even if you feel like you are totally justified in getting angry, as long as it is directed toward them, they will do anything they can to make themselves into the victim, and you into the bad guy. Don’t punish, even when you have a clear opportunity to punish someone for their offenses. This is because any time you try to punish, it usually comes across as arbitrary abuse. Resorting to belligerent tactics is the best way to provide your antagonist with more ammunition. Also keep in mind that every time you get upset a negative part of the other person wins, every time you keep your cool that same part is diminished. Punishment is not a sustainable way to get what we want out of people. Rewarding them with attention, compassion and love is.

When someone acts rude treat them as if they are an animal that you are training that has not performed a trick properly. Anyone that has trained an animal knows that you withhold the food, you wait, you keep talking to it, and you just give it another chance. You don’t punish the animal unless it has physically harmed you. You don’t need to punish anyone, unless they have physically harmed you. Cultivate the same kind of patience with people that you might use with an abused pet. Imagine that everyone you know is a pet and that you are their lenient master.

Set Your Expectations of Others to Zero

Aggression is relatively inescapable. It is important to come to terms with the fact that, at any moment, anyone could say something that will really rile you up or make you feel demeaned, disregarded, or disrespected. I encourage you to ask yourself: “Are my emotions open to being provoked by anyone at any time, or do I govern my emotional reactions?” The answer (without being jaded or cynical) should be: “Yes, I am prepared for the worst, even though I treat others as though I only expect the best from them.”

Conflict Activity # 2: Imagine Your Friends Abusing You
Imagine that everyone in your social world is trying to verbally abuse you. They are using personal character attacks, and are doing so in really foul and underhanded ways. Imagine yourself retaining your composure and staying perfectly calm and peaceful amid this type of derision. Imagine yourself not taking it personally, not taking it to heart, and continuing about your day in an effort to be productive and to accomplish your personal goals. Imagine yourself totally unphased by the abuse. This exercise takes the emotional shock away from personal attacks when they do happen and helps you to appreciate how good your social life really is.

Sometimes it can help to see people as computers or robots, what you put in is what you get out. This holds you responsible for any errors. When you stop blaming others and hold yourself responsible you have well-functioning encounters more frequently.

Conflict Activity #3: See People as Animate Matter
Spend a few minutes thinking of the people of Earth as being made of atoms and molecules that are completely controlled by physical laws. Imagine them as having no free will. Everything they do comes from prior experience and the existing circuits of their brain. Allow this to help you feel unoffended by their actions. See everyone as automatons, aggregation of cells that move and act in a predetermined way. Like a tumbleweed that has run into you, you are not offended by anything they do.

Also remember not to take the offenses of others personally. When someone says something snide you might find yourself immediately starting to wonder if the offender doesn’t like your face, or the way you talk. If a person is rude to you they are probably rude to everyone. You need to resist the tendency to ask: “why me?” One of the strongest approaches to regaining peace in your life is to avoid taking personal offense.

Aggression is Inherently Weak

Aggressive acts are almost always mutually destructive in the sense that they hurt all parties involved. When aggression creates positive outcomes, they are usually “pyrrhic” in the sense that they are achieved at a high cost, often costly to the point of negating or outweighing any benefits. Tell yourself that there are no “acceptable losses” with aggression and that because it leads to mutual destruction, aggression is self-defeating. Aggression is often violent in tone, and has elements of despair, defensiveness, self-pity and desperation. It is ironic that people often act aggressive to achieve respect but only rarely do others really respect aggressive people. This is because aggression is inherently weak. 

Studies with monkeys and apes have shown that stress, as measured by elevations in the stress hormone cortisol, is often more pronounced in individuals that are attempting to dominate than it is for their targets (Sapolsky, 2005). In trying to assert their dominance constantly these primates hurt their own health. People that are constantly trying to assert their rank by being aggressive are similarly damaging their health. Many people like their “mean” personality.  They think that the way they put others down is smart, witty or cool. Just remember, this behavior turns the world into a zoo and into a “struggle for serotonin.”

Fix Your Composure with Your Parents and the Most Dominant People in Your Life

Your relationship with your parents is primordial. The body language you feel comfortable using around them, or when thinking about them, sets a foundation for how you act with everyone else. Because our parents are often on our mind even when they are not around, we hold our posture and countenance as if we were in their presence. It is important that you feel comfortable using dominant, nonsubmissive body language around your Mom and Dad. As soon as you stop bracing your body in a way that is subservient or subordinate to your parents you will gain new freedom. To take special note of which aspects of your body language are submissive when you are with them and work on them.

The way you hold yourself around the most dominant people in your life affects you in a similar way. They likely influence you to send submissive displays even when they are not around. Think of the largest, strongest, most charismatic, most athletic, and most successful people in your life. It is important that you can feel comfortable and composed around them and that you stop sending them tribute in the form of submissive body language.

Don’t Feel Compelled to Sacrifice to Dominant Individuals

Subordinate apes often seek reassurance by putting a finger in the dominant animal’s mouth. They are risking their finger to pay their respects. This is like a sacrificial offering. Monkeys do this too. In stump tailed macaques formal rank is reinforced by a mock bite on the subordinate’s wrist. The subordinate approaches and places their arm under the dominant individual’s nose to invite this ritualized bite. It says: “If you don’t trust me you can try to bite my hand off.” Similarly, it is very common for humans to sacrifice disproportionate amounts of time and energy to help, or curry the favor of a dominant person. Don’t do this. They will not respect you for it.

Nondominant primates are obsessed with the dominant ones. Apes and monkeys spend a lot of time watching, or making frequent, furtive glances at dominant members of their troop (Shepherd & Platt, 2010). In experimental settings male monkeys will give up precious juice to view pictures of two things: 1) female hindquarters (not surprisingly), and 2) dominant males. In the wild, monkeys constantly inspect the dominants, watching their every move, and often giving them their full attention. Scientists suppose that this behavior plays a role in the “acquisition of important social cues.” People do this too. Have you noticed your own tendency to search out high-status members of the same sex and observe them jealously? Don’t secretly worship the body builders, the fitness models, and the rich people. Because giving them undue attention keeps you locked in a hierarchical mindset, don’t pay them any more attention than you would anyone else.

Use Proximity, Touch, and Eye Contact for Reconciliation

Physical conflicts are frequent in both monkeys and apes. Heart rates skyrocket, breathing becomes shallow, and the fur can fly. What happens afterward is what is important. Most conflicts, even major ones, don’t create distance because the animals tend to be intimate after an aggressive incident. They want to make up. After a fight chimps first seek out eye contact. After a conflict the former opponents may sometimes sit opposite each other for 15 minutes or more, trying to catch the other’s eye. One makes the first conciliatory move, holds out a hand, pants in a friendly way, and then approaches for mutual grooming. Often within a minute of a fight, apes will rush toward each other, kiss, embrace fervently, and then proceed to groom each other and even lick each other’s wounds. This physical contact is the only thing that has a rapid calming effect.

As they groom and share close physical contact their heart rates and breathing rates go back to comfortable, healthy levels. If the two primates don’t spend time in close proximity, and give their hearts a chance to calm in each other’s presence, they may never salvage their relationship. Think of some people that you have trouble getting along with. How do you make up with them after a spat? Failure to reconcile may stem from the fact that you have not made time to decrease your cardiorespiratory output in their close presence. Healing a relationship often necessitates a one-on-one “chill-out” session that involves close proximity, eye contact, and physical touch. 

Have Compassion for Your Transgressors

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each (person’s) life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In your mind, think of rude people as unsophisticated people. Remember that the most offensive people are likely to have had major life challenges such as early trauma, abuse, or neurological issues. In fact, inappropriate aggression can be a symptom of brain damage. When someone is rude remind yourself that they may have serious maladjustments and that, more often than not, they could use your help. Often these people may want to change but find it difficult or do not understand how to change. Unfortunately, their offensive behavior causes people to be rude back to them perpetuating their problem. 

Aggression derives from weakness, unfortunate experiences, and mental shortcomings so we should respond to it with compassion, empathy, and pity. It is sad that their priorities, judgment, and word choice are poor. If you had experienced everything they did, perhaps you would have turned out just like them. Aggressive people are flamboyant actors who are suffering offstage. Everybody is a sob story, and we are all walking wounded. Don’t let wounds beget wounds.

Another thing that people have to realize is that what they take to be deliberate premeditated, personal affronts are, more often than not, just defense mechanisms… or even more innocuously, just coping mechanisms. Most difficult people do things out of desperation because their sympathetic nervous system is set too high. People who are short of breath, shaken, and choked up, lash out. That is what they do. Almost everything that you don’t like about people is just them trying ineffectively to maintain their dignity. Work around them if you have to. Let your natural assertion and your compassion for them work together.

Anger and Rage

The brain’s rage system runs from the medial areas of the amygdala that perceive an anger inducing stimulus, to the areas that act on anger including the stria terminalis, the medial hypothalamus and the periaqueductal gray. In all mammals that have been tested, rage can be evoked by electrically stimulating these brain areas. When the electrical current is turned on the animal will spring toward whatever object is in front of it and bite. The attack becomes more intense as the current is increased. Certain stimuli from the environment naturally increase electrical activity in these areas: physical restriction, pain, hunger, and thwarted desires. You can see how these incendiary stimuli are different from the ones that evoke fear (loud sounds, fast movement, the odor or a natural predator). Animals in pain are always more prone to anger. Brain opioids on the other hand, act as a circuit breaker for rage, so do oxytocin and serotonin. Receiving a submissive gesture from another animal can increase these chemicals and thus quell the rage response (Panksepp, 2010).

Lab animals will go to lengths to avoid electrical stimulation of the rage system. Humans report that electrical stimulation of the rage system is highly aversive. People tend to clench their jaw, and report feelings of intense anger. Electrical stimulation of the rage systems causes small-brained mammals like mice to attack inanimate objects. It will induce more intelligent mammals like cats and dogs to aggress on the nearest animal. Primates show a further level of abstraction. Stimulating the rage system in apes and monkeys will cause them to vent their rage on submissive animals while avoiding more dominant ones. A monkey whose rage system is persistently stimulated will ascend in rank. An animal whose rage system is physically damaged in the lab (septal lesioning) will become tame and descend in rank. This is why you don’t want to fear becoming angry. As discussed in Chapter 8 don’t be afraid to draw your eyebrows together. Use anger to stand up for yourself or what you believe in, just not to lash out.

Make sure that you establish non-negotiable boundaries like your health, family, morals, and psychological well-being. Don’t expect people to read your mind, if something bothers you speak up and don’t expect other people to be able to recognize when things are not in your favor. Also remember that you have to take responsibility if your assertive words or actions ruffle other people’s feathers.

Just as with fear, every time you become adversarial, the emotion fortifies the anger pathways in the brain, making you a more petulant person. Every time you “indulge” in negativity you make tiny incremental alterations in neural structure that make it harder to be positive (Maletic et al., 2007). Conversely, every time you transcend anger, your capability to rise above it is increased.

People that raise dogs for dog fighting abuse them to get them to sneer. They will punch, pinch, or cut the dog repeatedly until it learns to bare its teeth immediately to provocation. They want the dog to live in a mental world where baring the teeth is the first reaction to any form of stress. This makes the dog mean. When a problem dog learns that it can bare its teeth at people, nipping and then biting soon follow. By relaxing and compressing your sneer you have deprogrammed your metaphorical bite. Because the muscles that lift the upper lip are no longer tense, you are not primed to attack verbally or otherwise.

In Chapter 1 we pointed out that there are two distinct neurological systems for predation and aggression. Imagine then, being a cat stalking in the grass without an ounce of anger or aggression aroused. Intently, calmly approaching your prey completely naïve of aggressive intent. Wouldn’t it be favorable to use this manner in a hostile social situation than anger or defensiveness? Don’t you think it would be more effective? When you see someone get angry, think of it as an opportunity to explain your true intentions and give them the information they need to feel less threatened. A person cannot stay mad at you if you don’t get defensive. Tackle the situation with assertion, not anger.

When a predatory mammal attacks prey their rage circuit is completely inactive. However, when a mammal attacks a member of its own species out of anger this rage circuit lights up. This is sometimes called a red-zone case. You cannot reason with an animal whose rage circuit is fully active. It is so focused that it won’t hear you. Injuring it will only intensify its ferocity. Its objective to kill overpowers any pain you might inflict. It would literally rather die than cease its attack. When the rage circuit is activated in a human, you cannot argue or reason with it. Their pain body has launched a sustained, uninhibited verbal offensive. Don’t ever feel like you have to pit yours against theirs.

You might ask if avoiding anger will cause suppressed emotion. It is common knowledge that if people suppress anger towards others they will end up “bottling it all inside.” But remember bottling it inside is tension, something you have now been trained to recognize and release. As long as you do not start bracing and you continue to breathe diaphragmatically you are not suppressing anger, rather you are deflecting it.

Making Your Calm-Assertive Energy Composed and Nonconfrontational

Cesar Millan uses the term “calm-assertive” energy to describe the aura of a pack leader. In his book “Cesar’s Way” he underscores that using this aura convinces pets to trust and value the owner’s authority. He explains how even a small child can gain authority over a 165 pound Rottweiler if they exude calm assertive energy. You must appear stern, and like you have expectations for others to respect your boundaries and limitations.

Cesar explains that your pet dog does not want to be your equal, it either wants to be dominant or inferior. He describes how most problem dogs that he treats try to assert their dominance over their doting owners. Dominance displays used by pet dogs include: jumping at people, insisting on being fed, being the first out the door, pulling the owner by the leash during walks, excessive barking, being unresponsive to commands and many others. They do these things when their owner is neither calm nor assertive.

Most dogs will gladly accept their owner’s dominance unless the dog believes that the owner’s energy is too weak. It knows that if the leader has weak energy that the “pack” is compromised. For its safety and your protection it will try to pick up the slack by asserting its own dominance. The same goes for children. Many well-intentioned parents are unwittingly submissive to their offspring and end up with aggressive, frustrated kids. If you are not using calm assertive energy, then the same goes for everyone in your life.

People also struggle for dominance for the same reason dogs do, for the sake of the tribe. Thus your coworkers, friends, and family have instincts that tell them that they don’t want to be your equal. Because they want the “pack” to have the strongest leader, they want to either lead or follow someone who is stronger. I recommend using calm-assertive energy combined with a nondominant/nonsubmissive demeanor in order to convince them that it is best to be your equal. Prove to them that equality is the preferable option. I think that these comparisons with animal behavior suggest a golden rule of social hierarchy: treat others as if they are neither above you nor below you in the status hierarchy.

Expose yourself incrementally to gradations of challenging social situations. Make an extra friendly comment to a service person in order to challenge yourself without pushing yourself into panic. Assert yourself in ways you were hesitant to previously and gently expand the boundaries of your comfort zone.

Forgiving Transgression

Be quick to forgive. If someone does something wrong then address it assertively. However, if they are not doing anything wrong in that moment, treat them as if they have never done anything wrong in their life. This is the best way to show everybody that you expect the best from them, and that they can expect the best from you. Keeping score or holding grudges only leads to bitterness from both sides.

Conflict Activity #4: Treat Others as if They Have Never Done Anything Wrong
Imagine what it would be like to treat everyone in your life as if they had never done anything wrong. Relate to each person as a trusted soulmate that has never harmed or insulted you in any way. Imagine your parents this way. Then your siblings, your extended family, your friends, coworkers, everyone. This should make you feel free from the burden of having to keep score, withhold affection, and mete out extended punishments.

Meditate on the term unassailable which means unable to be attacked, questioned or defeated. You are unassailable because you are a good person and do wrong only by accident. You are also unassailable because you respond to criticism dispassionately but with accountability. You don’t overreact, and you take responsibility for what you may have done. By completely owning up to any mistakes or any trouble that you may have inadvertently caused others, you are made invincible. 

If someone refuses to say “I’m sorry,” “thank you,” and “you were right” to you, it doesn’t mean that you should stop saying it to them. In fact, make yourself honor bound to say these things whenever they are applicable

Near the end of his book “The Ape in the Corner Office” Richard Conniff concludes that: “Status competition and hierarchy are inescapable facts of primate life. Though we disparage them, they are also essential tools for encouraging high performance and domestic tranquility.” A stable hierarchy is a guarantee of peace in a group of chimpanzees. Fighting is vastly reduced in chimps where the dominance hierarchy is clearly established. When the pecking order is stable in groups of chickens the hens fight less and lay more eggs. This is also true in humans. In a business merger if dominance roles are well defined it usually goes smoothly, but if roles are left undefined there is much more friction (Conniff, 2015). Conniff believes that prosocial dominance is what we should strive for. To him it is about making friends, employing compromise and persuasion, and getting people to work with you toward your common goals and the better good.

Psychopathy

In computer science there is a concept known as “device hardening” where the vulnerabilities of a computer are reduced by different means. These reduce the available methods of attack by hackers and viruses and include techniques such as changing default passwords, disabling unnecessary services, applying patches, closing network ports, and setting up firewalls and intrusion prevention systems. Program Peace has done this for you. You have been hardened and the vulnerabilities in your head, thorax, and abdomen will continue to be reduced as long as you partake in the exercises. This hardening process has strengthened you but also made you susceptible to psychopathy. Sudden power can change people for the worse. This is why I want to address the crux of psychopathy so that some readers do not let their newfound composure corrupt them.

In this section I am going to try to convince you that we have something to learn from the psychopath. They have a form of strength which we want, but also a tendency to hurt others, which we don’t. Let’s start by describing what we don’t want. Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by bold, disinhibited behavior, as well as impaired empathy, and remorse. It is often considered synonymous with sociopathy and antisocial personality disorder. Many psychopaths are serial bullies. They parasitize the people around them, constantly committing offenses many of which are nonarrestable. They are often not concerned with the psychological damage they inflict on their targets. They are frequently negativistic, impatient, intemperate, belittling, embittered, oppositional, defiant, over-competitive, petulant, and mean-spirited. They are easily slighted and quickly disillusioned. They leave people worse off than they found them and use pain as an instrument of power. Clearly we don’t want to act in this way.

The psychopaths that I know set people up to cross their lines of decency so that they can retaliate. They love their “mean” personality. They think that it is smart, witty, and cool. No one that I know, that is proud of being mean, is respectable. And I know several. They are all hypocrites and they all cross their own close friends and family more than anyone else. They are socially disabled and their behavior often results in tragedy.

There is an extensive research literature on the psychology and neuroscience of psychopathy. To boil it down, they exhibit alterations in emotional brain areas that cause them to be callous and fearless. Interestingly, their amygdala can be completely unresponsive to certain types of social stressors.

Psychopaths have reduced sympathetic responsiveness while looking at distressing pictures. The same is true when they look at pictures of people in distress. They are poor at naming fearful emotional expressions (Blair & Coles, 2000; Stevens et al., 2001). They have a diminished response to conditioned punishment, less fear, and reduced startle reflex to a myriad of startling stimuli (Blair, 1999, Flor et al., 2002, Levenston et al., 2000). But none of these things necessarily make them bad. A biological predisposition to being unafraid in itself doesn’t make you evil. Unfortunately for them, it causes them to make social mistakes and flout norms. The people that they unintentionally hurt punish them for their mistakes and thus they often develop into bad people. But the “bad” doesn’t come from fearlessness, it comes from taking delight in the pain of others.

Some people get pleasure out of hurting others. These people show activity in the brain’s reward circuit (the ventral striatum) when shown videos depicting deliberate infliction of pain (Buckholtz et al., 2010). When they watch someone maliciously prick another with a needle they feel amusement and gratification. Some psychopaths exhibit this, but many do not. Enjoyment of another’s pain is known as sadism and schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is defined as the feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people. It literally means “harm-joy.” Sadists don’t choose to feel satisfaction from someone else’s misfortune. It is neurological and derives from early experiences, or genetics. However, you can confront any tendencies you may have toward sadism and you and I are obligated to do so. Harm-joy is evil. Draw a hard and fast line in the sand.

You want to be psychopathic when it comes to the dominance hierarchy. You want to be stone cold when other people attack you. The difference being that you are too confident and compassionate to feel the desire to attack them in retaliation.

Lessons from Breaking My Nose

In Chapter 8 I recounted how my nose was broken at a McDonald’s at age 17. I didn’t tell the whole embarrassing story. I walked up to the McDonalds restaurant with exaggerated posture. Another 17 year old in the parking lot didn’t like it. He said a number of negative things to me and I asked him to leave me alone. While I was standing in line to order he made a final, unprovoked, disparaging comment. I didn’t consider him a threat, so I reached out and gently pulled the brim of his baseball cap down below his eyes. I expected that it would take a couple of seconds for him to fix this. Without even pushing the brim back up, he immediately tilted his head upwards so that he could see me and threw a swift right cross to my nose.

Now there are four things we can learn from this. If you are going to walk around with your chest puffed up, you have to be well-prepared to deal with people that are trying to call your bluff. Secondly, I shouldn’t have pushed his hat down. It was the wrong thing to do. It leapt over the line from assertion to aggression. When we touch someone else without being welcomed to do so it is a violation of something sacred. We shouldn’t ever touch people in anger unless it is in self-defense.

The third lesson I found in this is that any fight can do a lot of damage. The blow broke my skull in multiple places. Parts of the nasal bone, maxilla, and septum were fragmented. The surgeon said he had to pick out many bits of shattered bone from my face. The people in the emergency room told me the injury was consistent with being hit with a bat or a club. But I wasn’t hit with a club. I remember distinctly being hit with a fist. I was only hit once by a 17 year old boy that must have weighed less than 150 pounds. I think that this should be a lesson for all of us. Any physical violence can have severe costs, and just one strike from anyone has the potential to do grave damage. We don’t want our faces broken, and we don’t want to break anyone’s face either. Tell yourself that fighting is not worth the costs. Prepare yourself to skillfully and gracefully decline physical violence when it confronts you. This will give you the peace of mind to rise above it.

Having my nose broken changed my facial posture and increased the amount of repetitive strain in my facial muscles, but it did something else much more insidious. It stopped me from breathing nasally. A few months after the incident, I remember having difficulty breathing through my nose and concluding that my nasal passage must be too narrow after the injury. I resigned to being an obligate mouth breather. But my nasal passage hadn’t been narrowed by the damage, it was narrowed by the disuse.

After the nose break, it was packed with gauze for two weeks, and it was painful so I learned not to breathe nasally. Because I learned by habit to breathe through my mouth, my diaphragm atrophied and my tidal range shrunk. Nasal breathing became difficult, not because my nasal passage was any smaller, but because my diaphragm had grown weak. I was no longer able to breathe slowly, smoothly, on long enough intervals to make nose breathing tenable. As recounted in Chapter 11 I recently forced myself to start breathing through my nose again and it was difficult at first. Now it is second nature and it has created an additional layer of calmness and composure.

Four interesting lessons from one traumatic incident. It is funny that it took me 20 years to learn them. How many of our instances of trauma hold important lessons for us?

Prepare Yourself to Avoid Physical Confrontation

In this book I ask you to walk around like you are a superhero. This can be dangerous as it can arouse insecurity in others and could cause them to assault you. You need a few good conciliatory displays in your arsenal. There are many things you can do at the last second to forestall an attack. Just knowing that you have these is empowering and will help you keep your head cool when provoked.

Practicing a head nod greeting can prepare you to extract yourself from tense situations. The head nod consists of two movements, a quick motion either up or down, and then a slower motion resetting the head to its original setting. Nodding up is more assertive and can be perceived as a challenge if it is not accompanied by a smile or an eyebrow raise. Nodding down is more modest. Nodding down can be a helpful way to acknowledge someone and diffuse tension created by eye contact between strangers. The fact that you stayed composed while you acknowledged the other person civilly with a nod before they acknowledged you shows that you do not feel threatened and are not trying to threaten. A few dozen head nods in front of a mirror will train you to nod reassuringly after an unexpected encounter with a stranger.

Conflict Activity #5: Head Nod Greeting:
Practice a friendly head nod. It may help at first to do this in front of a mirror making eye contact with yourself. Start by nodding down quickly, and then back up at half speed. Practice both upward and downward nods. Repeat a few dozen times until you get the hang of it. Use the mentalis muscle at the bottom of the chin to raise the chin toward the mouth. Combine this with a risorious smile by drawing the corners of the lips outwards without smiling up into the cheeks. Then combine this with the nod. 

Nodding once is a positive display that will usually incite the other person to nod back and relax. Using the mentalis muscles to raise the chin and/or flashing a risorious smile sends a stern but friendly signal that diffuses suspicions.

Prepare yourself with dispassionate lines that will alleviate anger. These include: “hello, can I help you?” “I’m not looking for any trouble,” or simply “excuse me friend.” Say something peaceful while breathing deeply. This will advertise that you are not afraid and you are not angry. If the person looks angry and is confronting you physically you might want to diffuse tension by calmly introducing yourself. You could advance a single fist for them to “bump” their fist against, or advance an open hand to initiate a hand shake.

What is the best way to shake hands? Its pretty easy. Open the web between your thumb and index finger wide and make an effort to stick it firmly into their web. Keep your palm flat rather than cupped so that you can increase the surface area of contact between your palms. Wrap your hand around theirs, squeeze firmly, shake from the elbow and linger for a moment. A firm handshake that moves fluidly up and down shows that you are not trembling.

Most dominance displays in primates are bluffs. Monkeys will stare, jerk their head, lunge forward, or bluff charge in order to try to get another group member to startle and display submission. In fact, many wild animals will stop charging if you simply hold your ground. People that rely only on physical intimidation are looking for easy targets. It is the same when people try to criticize you. It is the people that crumble that get picked on forever. Don’t be intimidated, don’t startle.

In most escalating situations, if the person can tell that you are not afraid of fighting them, but are also not intentionally provoking them they will leave you alone. The best way to keep out of a fight is to show with your face that you are not scared at all, and secondly that you are not interested. No one is going to want to fight you if you look like you are disinterested in fighting. You want your attitude to say: “Oh we can certainly fight, but only as a last resort.” Make a personal decision not to fight civilians, just monsters, supervillains, evil robots, invading aliens, and extreme threats to good. So many people get pulled in to fights because of an immature attitude of petulance on their face. They are displaying an air of submissive threat. Primates make two kinds of threats, confident threats and subordinate threats. Subordinate threat is reckless, and comes from pain. Most human threat is subordinate threat.

You must also come to grips with the fact that you may have to fight to protect yourself or others. Animal behaviorists almost always recommend that you fight back fiercely once attacked by an animal. Criminologists recommend that you do the same if assaulted by a human. Don’t attack until after they have launched the first offensive, but after they have you fight fair, but fight with zest, gumption, and a determination to end the fight quickly with as little destructiveness as necessary.

How would you act if you encountered a wolf or mountain lion on a hike? You would want to act dominant and indifferent (but always letting the animal know you’re aware of its every movement). If you do this properly it will keep a safe distance most of the time, as you’re basically telling it you feel secure enough to stand your ground. This communicates that you pose a greater threat to it than it does to you. This is the mindset to use in public places. You want to implicitly communicate that you pose a bigger threat to them than they pose to you, but that you have no desire or intent to harm. If you act afraid of a carnivorous mammal, it “forces” it to become more aggressive. If you act afraid of other people, it similarly “forces” them, instinctively, to persecute you further.

Anticipating violent physical contact with an aggressor was one of the main sources of stress in my twenties. I realized this and resolved to refrain from physical violence until it is the last option. This greatly reduced my level of stress because the expectation of physical conflict is one of the main things that causes us to brace our chakra-like modules. Actively refraining from violence is an age-old practice. The Hindu and Buddhist practice of “ahimsa” (from the Sanskrit word for noninjury) is a doctrine of refraining from harming any living being.

Conclusion

Anger and aggression can come out of an interaction between two people who both feel that they are completely reasonable, moral, and intelligent.  It is incredibly easy for values and social rules to conflict, and egos to clash. If you put two unfamiliar cats into a room, they will probably not get along, especially if they are adults. You might desperately want them to get along, they might be happier if they did, but often they cannot get past their own reflexive, defense mechanisms. This confused, displaced hostility is fully analogous to the workplace and domestic hostility that we all witness and partake in regularly.

A large number of animals will attack their own reflection when they see a mirror for the first time. Apes will commonly take offense from their own body posturing. They send and receive threatening displays to their reflection until they provoke themselves into assaulting the mirror. If you saw a mirror image of yourself and I didn’t recognize it, would you be offended by your own posture and social displays?

Some animals see their reflections in the mirror and want to play. We should carry ourselves in a way that influences others to be playful. We’ll cover that in the next chapter.

Chapter 24: Bullet Points

  • No need to be right or make anyone else wrong
  • Don’t barb
  • Skillful assertion
  • Hostility is associated with heart disease, insulin resistance, and inflammation.
  • Never let anything anyone says cause you to beat yourself up from the inside
  • Try to bring out the best in people.
  • Do as much as you can to see others as tribe members collaborators, and players on the same team rather than competitors and rivals.
  • When dealing with a difficult person you want to sidestep their negativity, and take the shortcut to the outcome that you want while being fair and equitable.
  • Rid yourself of your defense mechanisms, and show no defensiveness.
  • Resist the emotional urge to take offense, to become defensive and to get revenge.
  • Recognize that there is extensive power in maintaining your composure.
  • Respond to provocation with calm noncontention.
  • Handle conflict charismatically
  • Acknowledge that your opinions are fallible
  • Don’t let them grab you by the breath
  • Take on the rugged exterior of a special forces commando, or an mythical god. You have corrupt governments to topple, and dragons to slay, you don’t have the energy for social strain.
  • Feel comfortable apologizing and offering clarification for your own behaviors.
  • Cultivate self-awareness for your tendency to take out frustrations and transfer blame.
  • Avoid implicitly condoning acts of improper treatment that you witness.
  • Lower your constant guard against perceived diminishment and loss of ego.
  • Reframe the rudeness of others as mistakes in priorities, judgment, social maturity, and word choice.
  • Demonstrate more interest in finding a solution than in defending a position.
  • Retain your peace regardless of the other person’s disposition
  • Instead of contradicting the contribution of another, think about how you can build on top of it.
  • Listen to and understand others’ perspectives without interrupting
  • Assume the best or neutral motives in others. Maintain an objective stance when conflict arises.