My experience with chronic stress was an extreme version of the same issue that everyone on this planet contends with. Thus, recounting my story of recovery provides a vivid case study with which to compare your experience. It also allows me to describe how the Program Peace exercises relieved my symptoms so that you can see how they can relieve yours. My symptoms were pretty bad.
My breathing was shallow and rapid. My eyebrows were constantly raised. I was always squinting and had purple creases under my eyes. I couldn’t maintain eye contact for long before my eyes would dart away of their own accord. I had an enduring lump in my throat and a hoarse and high voice. I had persistent kinks in my neck, tweaks in my lower back, and a clenched jaw. I mumbled and stammered when I spoke. I held my breath during conversations. I gasped between sentences and looked at the floor when speaking. I had almost no capacity to glare, frown, flare my nostrils, or straighten my neck in the company of others.
Throughout my twenties, I was deeply afflicted by anxiety, depression, and bodily discomfort. I was unaware that the symptoms described in the previous paragraph were causal factors in this discomfort. All I knew is that I felt perpetually distressed and couldn’t figure out why. The feeling would not abate and was resulting in chronic, low-grade pain. This made me wonder: “Where in my body do I hold this pain, and how can I access and extinguish it?” I found the physical manifestations of my stress to be completely elusive. I tried many different clinical and alternative methods to improve my condition without success. Popular breathing exercises, medical recommendations, psychological therapy, and stress reduction programs did nothing for me. So, I began experimenting on myself using methods derived from my knowledge of social cognition, neuroplasticity, and mammalian biology. The result was a system designed to train the body to reflect an optimal environment.
The core idea is this: Had you been raised in a perfect world with zero negativity, the way you hold your body would be painless and symptom-free. But no one is raised in an ideal world. Our spines, facial muscles, breathing musculature, and brains have internalized trauma over our life course. Trillions of individual cells are altered on a molecular level. The alterations cause muscles and soft tissues throughout the body to become stiff and sore. These insidious changes rob us of our composure and put us in a metaphorical straitjacket. That straitjacket constricts more and more with the passage of time. Left unchecked, it fits a little tighter every day until death. The system presented here will teach you how to recompose yourself to escape this stranglehold.
This book presents activities and exercises for you to practice, each accompanied by relevant scientific background for perspective. The focus will be on comparative physiology, explaining how our bodies function by comparing us with other animals. Considering these parallels helps us make inferences about ideal functioning in humans. We saw an example of this in the Preface: When mammals are calm, they breathe with the respiratory diaphragm. When they are distressed, they tense the diaphragm and breathe with other respiratory muscles. The more traumatized a mammal becomes, the more tense and inactive its diaphragm becomes.
In fact, the diaphragm is one of your body’s main repositories of trauma. The tightening stranglehold discussed above partially corresponds to cumulative changes to your breathing style that make you breathe more shallowly, unevenly, and rapidly. You can release this trauma by training your diaphragm, which we will start later in this chapter before focusing on it in depth in Chapter 3. You will learn a series of methods to make your breathing permanently deeper, smoother, and slower. This sends an “it’s okay to relax” message to the entire body.
By training your diaphragm to preside over your breathing, you can convince your body to assume that it resides in a habitat free from danger. The remainder of the book will guide you through exercises that combine this form of peaceful breathing with various postures, expressions, and forms of body language. In performing them, you will reprogram yourself for confidence, health, and peace.
Stress Resides in the Way We Carry Ourselves
Most of us have, knowingly or not, experienced intense, long-term periods of stress. In my case, it happened throughout my twenties. In the morning, I would wake up feeling anxious. After just a few social encounters, my heart would be racing and my adrenaline overwhelming. Friends and acquaintances were often alarmed by the way I behaved, wondering what I could possibly be so stressed about. I would greet a friend, and the expression on my face would cause them to scan the immediate environment for threats because the fear on my face suggested to them we were in immediate danger. People would ask me: “What is it that you’re so worried about?” To which I would reply: “I’m rarely worried about anything specific. It must be biological.”
Under conditions of chronic stress, symptoms continually worsen over time. My default stress level had been elevated over many years. Upon going to bed, instead of allowing myself to return to a tranquil baseline, I fell asleep more frantic than the night before. When this happens, the body’s systems become stuck in a state of overdrive. Thought processes become overclocked. It becomes hard to fall asleep, difficult to rest, and impossible to relax. Many of us reach a point at which our experience of life is like a “bad trip,” infused with the sensations of both withdrawal and overdose. As tolerance to the sensations of stress builds, many people barely notice how deranged they have allowed themselves to become.
Pressing social concerns and professional responsibilities cause us to ignore the symptoms. As we habituate to the physical and mental anguish, our body continues making long-term adjustments that further entrench us in overexertion. This is compounded by the fact that it has historically been very difficult to successfully treat chronic stress. Modern medicine has no real solution aside from drugs and rest. This is why most people do little to nothing about it.
After a particularly bad day, while lying in bed trying to meditate, I had an epiphany. I recognized the way I was holding my body as the source of my mental suffering. For the first time, I could feel my anxiety not as diffuse and psychological, but as aching localized in my gut, stiffness in distinct spinal muscles, as agonizing contortions of my face, and as the misery of stiff, shaky breathing.
Recognizing that I did not hold my body in this way as a child, I immediately wanted to know how I had come to do it. From that point on, I have been working to discover how the body and mind compensate after being exposed to trauma. In creating this system, I spent countless hours analyzing my behavior and how I carried myself in minute detail. After comparing my mannerisms with the scientific literature on the manifestations of stress in mammalian biology, I came to realize I was a model of precisely what not to do. This process of self-deconstruction took me from being the most nervous person I knew to the calmest.
Why is stress so extensive in humans? It is because it had survival benefits. As a result of our prehistoric past, we react to minor threats as if they were matters of life and death. Most modern human stress derives from mundane frustrations that our body’s evolved mechanisms misinterpret as life-threatening dangers. Although most people don’t realize it, most of these minor “threats” are ultimately social in nature. I believe that the predominant source of stress is the apprehension of social conflict and the tension that it creates. Deep down, we are afraid that others will reject us if we are too calm. We make ourselves feel uneasy and excitable, so that our outward manifestations of stress communicate goodwill. I hope this book will convince you that you don’t need to manufacture and advertise stress to avoid conflict and make friends.
Illustration 1.1: A. Facial muscles; B. Cross-section of the heart; C. Diaphragm and bottom of the rib cage.
Submissive Nonverbal Behavior Is in Our Genes
Nonverbal social displays perpetuate the majority of our bodily tension. In biology, a “display” is an innate behavior that has evolved to serve a communicative purpose in members of the same species. Many such signals are observed in the animal kingdom. They are often used to negotiate conflict. For example, among wolves, the pack leader has a dominant posture: head and ears up, chest forward, tail stiff, and a confident swagger.1 The other members of the pack (especially if unrelated to the leader) walk with heads lowered, ears back, and tails low and wagging. They remain behind the pack leader when traveling. If the alpha wolf challenges them, they will back away, bend down, or even lie on the ground exposing their vulnerable underbellies. It is clear to see that constant submissive signaling imprisons beta wolves in a suboptimal state of being.
Subordinate dogs use much of the same body language.2 They lick or swallow nervously, display submissive grins, freeze, and tremble. Many dogs in the act of submission will dribble urine or pee on themselves without even lifting their leg. Canines are not unique in this. All mammals resort to their own set of subordination displays. They do it to avoid the escalation from contest to attack. To avoid outright fighting and bodily harm, lower-ranking individuals send a message: “You don’t need to undermine me, because I am already undermining myself.”
Due to how social primates are, submissive displays may be more important to them than to any other order of mammal. As primates, humans constantly send out signals about inferiority and resignation. Indeed, much of our nonverbal behavior exists to communicate deference to other humans. When we encounter a dominant member of our species, we restrict our breathing, subvert our posture, speak in a high voice, and tighten our faces.3 Monkeys and apes routinely do the same.4 It is essential to realize that these displays are controlled by innate, unconscious processes.5 Although you may not think you are inferior, we were all born with neural pathways that cause us to adopt postures signifying inferiority. These pathways are encoded in our DNA and soldered into our nervous system before birth.
Samuel Johnson said, “No two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.”6 If this is true, the average person acts submissive at least 50% of the time. Even when we meet someone new, regardless of their status, we stoop our necks, stop flexing our buttocks, raise our shoulders, and stand shorter to make certain we do not offend them. This is the equivalent of the principal mammalian submissive display of rolling over to expose the belly.
We have all known since preschool that bullies don’t want us to appear calmer than they are. If they think we are too relaxed, they are often willing to become violent. To address this, we learn to use anxiety as a form of social lubrication. I would go as far as to say that very little of my anxiety was due to the usual purported cause: physical trauma and rumination about it. I was not a victim of domestic abuse as a child and have never been molested. I believe that most of my anxiety and depression was due to the cumulative effects of submissive signaling.
These ritualized, self-destructive displays extend to our breathing. We unconsciously assume that to be respectful and friendly, we must make our breathing shallow. We are afraid that if our breaths are deep and long, other people will find it offensive. Again, shallow breathing is inherited from our mammalian ancestry. It shows other individuals that we are taking the present encounter seriously rather than being too relaxed.
The use of submissive “tells” communicates a history of victimization. They can also communicate that we are tired, distressed, possibly crippled, and are not poised for fighting. Instead, they show we are poised for flight. This would have kept humans safe during hunting and gathering times. It may also have kept us safe from larger kids on elementary school playgrounds. But it only holds us back in modern adulthood. Unless, of course, you are in prison.
For an inmate to avoid attracting negative attention in jail, criminologists recommend using submissive body language. Their advice? Never puff up your chest, minimize eye contact, don’t whistle, don’t sing, don’t dance, and, above all, keep your head down (pointed toward the ground). Nonsubmissive body language is taken as disrespectful. Acting depressed keeps others from wanting to attack you. This was probably a major concern for our ancestors as many experts today believe the major predator of prehistoric humans was other humans.
People who have close encounters with 400-pound silverback gorillas in the wild must do the same. The more subdued they act, the less likely they are to be attacked. So, primatologists in the field slump over, act sheepish, move very slowly, and look straight at the ground, avoiding any eye contact. Even though they are perfect strangers amid adult gorillas and their young, as long as they continue to do these things, they are usually completely safe. But you don’t live among wild gorillas, and you are likely not reading this book from a jail cell, so don’t resort to conciliatory gestures. It is not your responsibility to placate anyone with postural concessions. Instead, we should make it our responsibility to overcome our genetic inclinations to do so and influence others to do the same, even if only by example.
Handicapping Signals Buy Mercy
Animal behaviorists point out that the costs of handicapping signals may enhance their perceived value. Because submissive behaviors hurt us, others recognize them as valid. Tensing our muscles and using inefficient postures usually results in an energy deficit, meaning that a subordinate individual is “spending” energy to “buy” mercy. The crouching and cringing that nondominant wolves exhibit require extra energy and come with personal costs (such as muscular strain) yet communicate that they are loyal, servile members of the pack. Thus, capitulation responses are authentic signals that we are operating with an impediment.
Blushing and crying have been conceptualized in a similar way.7 Indeed, a blush can be unwanted, but often the costs to the blusher can be outweighed by the benefits. The involuntary aspect of a blush declares sensitivity to social norms and proves to others that you feel shame or guilt and value the group. Crying is an extreme form of self-handicapping. Some scientists believe that its evolved purpose is to self-sabotage normal vision. It also simulates respiratory distress. Sobbing thus signals acquiescence to a potential assailant. It convinces the aggressor that we are no longer a threat. There are many similar displays among animals, all of which are ways of saying, “Look, I’m going to all this extra trouble just to prove to you that I’m not an enemy.”
Chimpanzees have obvious ways to signal that they have been defeated: walking in an apathetic way, covering their face, hitting themselves, and lying prostrate. Primates depend on these submissive displays because they constantly compete with members of their close-knit group for mating opportunities and food. Generally, hierarchies among males govern access to fertile females, whereas female hierarchies govern access to food resources, as these are a limiting factor for pregnancy and lactation. As modern humans, we usually don’t fight physically over sex or meals, so why are our inclinations for submission so strong?
The answer is that humans don’t just self-handicap to display deference. Unfortunately for us, we also do it to be likable. In humans, signaling a handicap can communicate modesty, conveying that one is not shameless or brazen. We demonstrate anxiety to build rapport with others, smooth over issues, and prove our friendliness. We do our best to act ingratiating, taking on bodily tension to do so. It is part of people-pleasing and the need to be accepted, but it is incredibly draining. This book will introduce a philosophy for dealing with these pressures, describing how to be a calm, confident, likable person without recourse to submissive signaling.
We use submissive displays around those we see as our superiors, our equals, and even our inferiors. Even very dominant people use subordination displays to be endearing and get people to open up and trust them. Therefore, it is not always clear whether submissive signaling is better characterized as weakness or as a form of social intelligence. It depends on the circumstances: primarily on the specific display in question and how long it is used. Before we discuss this let’s look at comparable displays in other animals.
Submissive and Dominant Displays in Animals
Dominant and submissive displays occur in almost all animal species, from insects to fish to the great apes.8 Threatening intimidation displays are meant to impress, making the animal bigger or emphasizing its physical dominance. They involve bristling hair, ruffling feathers, raising skin folds, baring teeth, displaying horns, emitting loud sounds, making quick and powerful movements, and adopting exaggerated postures.
When a western silverback gorilla wants to intimidate a rival, he will start throwing objects, pounding his chest, kicking his legs, and running sideways when approached. The fur of dominant chimps stands on end to make them appear larger, and they walk with exaggerated weight. They gallop, run in circles, hit things, perform somersaults, and produce a wide range of loud barking and hooting vocalizations.
Dominant lizards perform pushups, bobbing their heads up and down, displaying their muscles and athletic prowess for others to see. This display shows off the bright coloring on their throats and sides and indicates that they are in prime physical condition. Many male lizards raise themselves on their legs and arch their backs to signify territorial dominance. And remember, lizards are not utterly distinct from people. Three hundred million years ago, before mammals, our ancestors were reptiles crawling the earth. We have inherited many of our most primal instincts and social signals—as well as the structure of the oldest and most reflexive parts of our brains—from these miniature dragons. This inheritance is the reason that the dominance displays of modern reptiles seem so familiar.
Illustration 1.2. A. Common lizard; B. Tyrannosaurus rex; C. Iguana.
Submissive displays, on the other hand, usually make the animal look smaller and weaker. They involve bowing, cowering, stooping, shaking, and exerting efforts to minimize the appearance of physical assets. Some animals have bizarre, ritualistic signals, as with some lizard species that display submission by raising a front leg and waving it in a slow, circular motion. Like a loyal subject genuflecting in the presence of royalty, chimpanzees with poor fighting records cower immediately during a confrontation. They shrink down and whimper. They may vomit, their legs shake, and their posture collapses.
For the most part, these displays are hardwired. For example, young male rhesus monkeys that have never been exposed to adult males will give subordination displays instinctively when they first encounter them. They involuntarily bow the head and adopt a bent-over posture. We don’t realize it or think about it, but our subordination displays are similarly instinctive.
Table 1.1: Common Hierarchical Displays Used by Chimps, Bonobos, Gorillas, Orangutans, and Gibbons
Too often, being fair, fun, and friendly toward others involves suboptimal displays. This is because the neural circuits responsible for submissive behavior were repurposed by natural selection to help us get along. Just as adult pair bonding in mammals evolved from the same brain machinery that was initially responsible for creating the mother/infant bond,9so many of our affiliative instincts evolved from submissive displays.
Involuntary Submissive Displays are the Source of Our Stress
Ordinarily, we don’t use optimal postures because we are afraid they will be threatening to others. This is why, for instance, we rarely stand completely straight or lift our hands above our heads. This is unfortunate because when authentic and combined with positive affect, dominant displays can be calming and reassuring to people around us. Any good leader uses them to this effect. But because most of us never learn to use dominant displays in positive ways, we grow up associating them with bad experiences. For instance, classmates might have seen us walking with our heads up, taken offense, and tried to intimidate us into adopting a compliant, head-down posture. Experiences like these are the reason that performing optimal displays makes you breathe shallowly and become tense.
The table below lists submissive (suboptimal) displays and their dominant (optimal) counterparts. These are just a handful of those considered in this book, but they are a good start. While reading the table below, make a mental determination of which displays you use most and to what extent. Think about how you employ these displays in different scenarios, such as when you are by yourself at home, when you are with friends, and when you are in public.
Table 1.2: Submissive Displays vs. Dominant Displays in Humans
We often refrain from using the dominant displays in Table 1.2 above because they might make people feel uncomfortable. The more we suppress them, the more our ability to use dominant nonverbals withers away due to disuse. This book will provide a thorough description of healthy, safe, well-functioning use of dominant nonverbal behavior.
How we carry ourselves has been molded by other people’s reactions to our posture. Hundreds of elements of our body language have individual learning histories and have been either positively or negatively reinforced until they reached their current settings. This reinforcement is sometimes outright, as when our parents tell us not to stare, but is often subtle, as when peers ignore us until we take the bass out of our voice. The people who influence you to send them submissive signals may not be doing so because they dislike you. It may just be because they take it as flattery and don’t want you to stop flattering them. Regardless, you did not choose your current postural settings; they were inadvertently chosen throughout the trial and error of your social learning. Most of them were selected during childhood and adolescence when you were surrounded by immature people and relatively immature yourself.
As you step out of your room, get out of your car, or walk into the grocery store, you are constantly trying to determine how you should hold your body. You are gauging how much impunity you can walk around with. You unconsciously scan each area to see whether there is anyone you will have to cower before. This behavior traces back to experiences you had in kindergarten. Even in adulthood, we relate to people as if they are about to physically attack us. We overcompensate by being chummy and compliant, totally out of proportion with any existing social threat. This keeps us from being our authentic selves. Prepare to leave all that in the past and hold your body like there is nothing and no one to be afraid of.
Use activities 1 and 2 below to get a sense of where you sit on this continuum, between the two extremes of submission and dominance, in your neighborhood.
In the past, I thought that interpreting social interactions in terms of status wasn’t productive or informative because the concepts of dominance and submission were passé. This proclamation of indifference toward the social hierarchy made me feel insightful and unique. It took time to realize that this stance was a play for status in itself.
Most people publicly pretend that the status hierarchy doesn’t exist and that there is nothing submissive about them. However, many experts see dominance and submission as the fundamental concepts in social science, the same way mass and energy are the fundamental concepts in physics.10 They are also key concepts of most relationships, including working relationships, in which individuals rely on one another to achieve their goals. As such, it is crucial to identify and efficiently navigate dominance games. This book is not trying to influence you to think about status more than you already do. It is meant to get you to think about it, and be negatively affected by it, less
A Description of My Submissiveness
At this point it is helpful to use my history as an example. From my teens through my twenties, I hung out with a rough crowd. A number of my friends were convicted criminals and former gang members. Several were brawny athletes, while others were drug addicts. I enjoyed their companionship, but I was unaware of the extent to which I felt compelled to send them subordination signals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but around them, I acted modestly at best and timid at worst.
Incarcerated people adopt exaggeratedly meek displays and carry these with them after being released from jail. Burly athletes commonly demand tribute from others in the form of deferential body language. Drug addicts exhibit some of the worst composure and breathing habits of anyone. Having these people as companions caused me to unknowingly amplify my existing submissive signaling to prove that I was an ally, not a competitor. I often felt courteous and gracious while sending these displays, but even minuscule nonoptimal displays become entrenched over the long term. Moreover, the more often you are submissive, the more others expect that behavior, and the more likely they are to be offended when you try to switch to more assertive behavior.
Illustration 1.3: A. Snarling dog; B. Subordinate wolf licking the dominant wolf.
You may have experienced trying to become more confident and assertive only to face social rejection. Here’s how it happened to me. In my twenties, I tried to be more assertive at work. Away from my friends, I attempted to reduce my subordination signaling, doing my best to be calm and confident on the job. But my coworkers could tell from my breathing and facial tension that I was accustomed to using inferior mannerisms. They saw that I was attempting to withhold submissive signals from them. This made them angry, caused them to dislike me, and led to social rejection.
Submissive habits, social reinforcement, and accumulating tension continue to snowball once they start rolling. By my late twenties, I couldn’t even pretend to be calm around anyone I knew. Each new acquaintance immediately assumed, from the way I presented myself, that I was their underling. I constantly felt that people were condescending and dismissive. I couldn’t see it, but it was my own fault. People couldn’t respect me because I acted like I didn’t respect myself. The condescension started to make me into a bitter, resentful person.
Crucially, the social dynamics at play are not about what you say but how you say it. It’s the nonverbal behaviors that matter. If you saw a written transcript of my speech as a stressed-out 28-year-old, you might think I seemed chivalrous. But if you saw a video, you would immediately perceive me as fainthearted and jittery. At the time, I thought that people mistakenly perceived my kindness as weakness. Rather, they perceived my shortness of breath, my cowering posture, and cringing expressions as weakness.
Submissiveness is not just a social phenomenon. Once submissive actions become ingrained quirks, the stress and heartache they promote will negatively affect your mental and physical health. In my case, the symptoms were extreme. In addition to anxiety and depression, I showed other psychiatric symptoms of stress, such as a disrupted attention span, a working memory deficit, and panic attacks. I developed medical complications related to stress, including diagnoses such as esophageal achalasia, dyshidrotic eczema, male pattern balding, low testosterone, and outbreaks of cherry hemangiomas. I had back pain, frozen shoulder, tennis elbow, coccydynia, excessive cervical and lumbar lordosis, forward head posture, hip bursitis, unequal leg length, plantar fasciitis, Osgood-Schlatter disease, temporomandibular joint dysfunction, and numerous other structural misalignments and asymmetries. Medical professionals recognize each of these as linked to chronic stress.
Since I developed the exercises in this book, all those conditions, disorders, and symptoms have disappeared, and none have returned. Having had this experience and familiarizing myself with the vast body of scientific literature that relates stress to disease, I have concluded that submissive displays and the associated bodily tension are among the most pressing public health problems worldwide. However, it is not only preventable; it is also entirely reversible.
Even if all environmental sources of stress disappeared from your life, it would still be challenging to eliminate the lasting trauma already present in your body. Once your breathing has become hurried and your muscles have developed knots, it is very difficult to reverse this without employing the techniques in this book. Healing yourself with the Program Peace exercises can feel uncomfortable. To be free of trauma, you must work with and through its physical manifestations. Self-massaging achy muscles, overriding your shallow breathing style, flexing your way into better posture, and performing the various exercises within this book require resolve and determination. The good news? Even a little at a time adds up fast.
Chronic Use of Submissive Displays Leads to Deep Trauma
We often maintain a specific submissive display for long stretches of time. Many displays never abate. For example, some people spend their lives speaking in a voice that is much higher in pitch than is comfortable for them. Everyone overuses displays like this, allowing them to become fundamental components of their personality. These are rarely considered because we are usually utterly unconscious of them and lose perspective on how destructive they can be. Society has done little to recognize them, so there is scant relevant scientific research. Nevertheless, they constitute “bad form” that, when used habitually, comes at a steep price.
As we will discuss in Chapter 5, any muscle that is significantly contracted for more than a few minutes, and thus deprived of rest, will begin to take on damage. Most submissive displays, such as squinting or stooping the neck, last for several minutes or even hours. Even when it is unnoticeable, strain accumulates. At first, you might only slightly raise your shoulders and your eyebrows. Over time, however, knots develop in those muscles, keeping them permanently raised. The knots starve the muscle of blood and force it to atrophy. This eventually makes the muscle achy, weak, and dormant, leaving it perpetually fatigued and creating a source of chronic pain.11 I will build on this concept of strain accumulation in almost every chapter of this book as we work through techniques for undoing its effects on different body parts.
I believe that I developed each of the medical symptoms listed in the last section as either a direct or indirect consequence of submissive muscular strain that went on too long. Muscles that are strained repetitively send continuous pain messages to the brain’s emotional centers12. Sounds bad, right? Consider that the predominant form of social breathing in humans—shallow breathing in which the diaphragm is not utilized—increases muscle tension throughout the body. This dramatically compounds the strain and spreads it to the entire musculoskeletal system13. Below, Table 1.3 shows how prolonged use of the submissive displays listed in Figure 1.2 strains muscles, leading to unhealthy consequences.
Table 1.3: Submissive Displays and the Unhealthy Consequences
As the exercises in later chapters will discuss, the way to reinvigorate these bodily systems is to use them to their full extent. By completely contracting the muscles involved, you can pull them out of their partially contracted state and thus out of chronic fatigue and chronic pain. The problem is that contracting these muscles when breathing shallowly risks pushing them into a cramp or spasm. However, contracting them while breathing deeply will restore their normal range of motion, reinstate their proper blood supply, and remove all manifestations of tension, strain, and trauma.
The Program Peace Method: Replace Submissive Behaviors with Assertive Ones
Now that you know what submissive displays are and how they can be so damaging, let’s talk about fixing them. The goal is clear: To improve your health, you need to replace your default submissive habits with their assertive, relaxed alternatives. We’ll start with a simple example.
Consider sneering. The sneer is made possible by muscles that run along the sides of the nose and lift the upper lip when contracted. Mammals sneer so that they do not bite into their lips during an attack-bite. Most mammals also sneer when threatened or uncomfortable. This is because displaying the canines is the equivalent of flashing a dagger or putting a hand on a gun.
Dominant primates rarely sneer, while subordinates do it constantly. The most socially damaged monkeys have tense, stiff sneering muscles that they cannot relax. Because they are always sneering, they always feel threatened. It is the same in humans. The tension in these muscles crushes our facial composure, making it difficult to appear calm and collected. Once I realized that my sneering muscles had painful knots in them, I developed exercises alternating between completely contracting and completely relaxing them, pairing both with diaphragmatic breathing. I also created a massage routine to release the cramps. Completely loosening the knots in my sneering muscles took me a couple of minutes a day for a few months, but it was well worth it. The once-painful, knuckle-sized knots are gone completely. I look much calmer now and feel less defensive. After completing the exercises in Chapter 9, you will, too. The next activity may capture your interest in this phenomenon.
Most people would feel very uncomfortable performing the exercise above in public. Interestingly enough, most people also feel extremely unguarded when they let their sneering muscles go lax. This is why these muscles are stuck in “sustained partial contraction.” You can pull these muscles out of partial contraction by pairing both sneering and its absence with diaphragmatic breathing, which will afford your face a whole new level of composure. Each chapter in this book will guide you to combine a different set of displays, and the accompanying contractions, with proper breathing in a thorough, systematic approach. The next section explains how this approach works and why it relies on pairing both submissive and dominant displays with diaphragmatic breathing.
The Methodology: Combining Optimal Behaviors with Diaphragmatic Breathing
As shown in the figure below, breathing slowly and deeply with the diaphragm reduces your heart rate and stress response.
Figure1.1: Before time 1, this person is breathing short, shallow breaths with a high heart rate and a high
stress response. At time 1, this person takes two slow, deep breaths. You see a corresponding decrease in their heart rate and stress response. At time 2, they resume shallow breathing, causing their heart rate and stress levels to go back up.
Learning how to breathe deeply is not enough, however. We need to build it into the basic ways we carry ourselves, move through the world, and interact with others. The key to adopting dominant behaviors is to train your body to feel comfortable engaging in them. You can do this by practicing diaphragmatic breathing while using confident postures and displays. This will enable you to replace your long-standing associations between assertive behavior and the stress response.
As another example, consider the involuntary placement of your eyes in social situations. Looking upward, above the eye line, is a clear dominance display. This is why most people feel uncomfortable looking up in public. If you spend 30 seconds on a crowded street looking upward, you will likely become very self-conscious. Your breathing will become shallow and rapid, your heartbeat will speed up, and your stress level will increase. Here is what that looks like:
Figure 1.2: These graphs show relaxed breathing that is slow and deep until the person uses an optimal display starting at time 1. Using the display causes their breathing to become more shallow than usual, and you see a corresponding increase in their heart rate and stress response. This lasts until time 2 when they cease performing the display.
The unconscious fear of behaving dominantly keeps our body language withdrawn and demure. But there is a simple solution. If you spend a few minutes per day practicing slow, long, deep breaths from your diaphragm while looking up, then an upward gaze will stop recruiting the panicked breathing response. It will instead begin to feel natural and even occur involuntarily. You should start by practicing alone, then in public, and transition toward using it socially. Practicing for just a few minutes a day can train you to stop looking down in a few weeks. This technique can be used to make all forms of optimal body language feel comfortable and arise spontaneously.
Figure 1.3: These graphs depict data from a person who has used the Program Peace method of exposing a dominant display to diaphragmatic breathing. Despite using dominant body language from time 1 to time 2, their breathing remains slow and deep, and there is no discernable change in their heart rate or stress response. Because they have calmed their body’s unconscious reaction to the display, it no longer provokes fear, guilt, or stress.
The exercises in this book will first ask you to pair assertive behavioral subroutines that you would ordinarily find unnerving with paced breathing. After isolating and treating them individually, you will be asked to combine several of them together so that you can become comfortable using many assertive nonverbal behaviors at once. For instance, we will learn to breathe deeply with a calm face, upward eyes, straight neck, and relaxed vocal posture. You will also work on dissociating optimal postures from the submissive ones that often accompany them. For example, we will isolate widening your eyes from raising your eyebrows and isolate smiling from squinting and sneering.
Your brain’s current records of how to hold your body correspond with remarkably high precision to where you think you fit in the hierarchy of your social group. Most people who want to be more assertive try to manipulate the environment by competing, conniving, or using power plays to change other people’s perceptions of them in hopes that they will be allowed to gradually assume a more dominant role. Unfortunately, this is a stressful process that tends to compound their problems. Instead, Program Peace will show you how to transform yourself from the inside out.
The Program Peace method relies on established principles from the science of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to restructure neuronal connections in response to new experiences and demands. This process underlies all learning, training, and rehabilitation.14 It is always available, so you can start at any age and practice whenever you want. Another great aspect of neuroplasticity is that it makes things automatic. With time, neuroplastic changes consolidate and stabilize, making what you have learned second nature. The exercises in this book leverage neuroplasticity to optimize your composure by exposing your brain circuits for acting like a boss to the brain circuits for feeling safe. Coactivating the neurons in these circuits will allow you to override your autopilot and make the habits of an alpha your default.
Illustration 1.4: A. A neuron; B. Cross section of the brain; C. Coactive brain regions.
Even behaviors that express positive emotions have been routinely coactivated with distressed breathing over your lifetime. Smiling is the quickest way to recruit shallow breathing in most people. We will use long, deep breathing in Chapter 10 to detraumatize your smile and in Chapter 25 to detraumatize your laugh. This book will provide you with a diaphragmatic makeover, restructuring dozens of behaviors and postures, dissociating them from the fight-or-flight response, and decoupling them from distressed breathing. By now, you may be curious to find out what diaphragmatic breathing feels like, so let’s get acquainted with it using the activity below.
Next is the first Program Peace exercise, which pairs a long diaphragmatic exhalation with vocalization to strengthen both your voice and diaphragm. Being able to talk for an extended period before needing to inhale is a very dominant trait. To do it, you need a strong diaphragm that can push all the way through its full range of motion, squeezing most of the air out of the lungs. On the other hand, it is very common that submissive people with tense diaphragms have to gasp after every few words they speak. Partially because they are used to being interrupted, their diaphragm is not capable of unwavering, prolonged contractions. Once you extend the amount of time you can speak on a single breath, even by a couple of seconds, you will feel and appear much more confident.
Not only will the exercise above strengthen your diaphragm, but it will also strengthen your voice. Let’s consider a hypothetical example of how sustained diaphragmatic breathing can help rehabilitate other parts of your body. Take the neck, for instance. Imagine that you have been forced to crank your neck into an uncomfortable position, like looking up and to the extreme left for five straight minutes. Now, imagine four scenarios:
- In the first scenario, you breathe very shallowly, as if you were frightened by something terrible. At the end of five minutes, you would likely have developed a cramp that would be painful for a few days.
- In the second scenario, you breathe normally. You might come out of this ordeal with your neck feeling a little tight and uncomfortable, and the feeling might disappear after a few hours.
- In the third scenario, you do your best to breathe slowly, deeply, and diaphragmatically. Breathing in this way, you might avoid neck pain entirely at the end of the five minutes.
- Finally, in the last scenario, you breathe as you will be able to do after you spend 12 weeks completing the breathing retraining outlined in Chapter 3 of this book. In this situation, your neck would be much less likely to take on any long-term strain. Rather, it would be strengthened and toned by the five-minute effort.
Diaphragmatic breathing protects us from the negative consequences of repetitive strain, while shallow breathing makes us vulnerable to it. Shallow breathing at our desks destroys our necks and lower backs. Shallow breathing during exercise limits our potential gains and recovery. Shallow breathing while grinning destroys our smiles. Shallow breathing while socializing drives chronic anxiety. The rest of this book will guide you to pair deep breathing with a diverse assortment of different muscle activation patterns. The exercises will engage muscles in the spine, gut, throat, face, genitals, and many other locations, building strength, flexibility, mobility, and optimal tone.
The process of working through suboptimal postural habits to gradually retrain your body is emotionally cathartic and will give you an opportunity to reinvent yourself. The reprogramming you’re taking on will act like a “cheat code” allowing you to “hack” into the programming of your nervous system and reset it to a lower level of stress. Each chapter resets a different bodily system. Rather than listing them here, the specific topics that will be discussed can be found in the chapter titles in the Table of Contents. The figure below illustrates the problems at hand and how they are addressed by Program Peace.
Figure 1.4: Threats are interpreted by the brain and go on to affect breathing, behavior, and muscle tension. The Program Peace exercises address these issues individually.
How This Book Is Organized
This book features over 200 activities and exercises grouped by chapter. After the description of each exercise in the book, you’ll find the recommended length of time that exercise should be performed (e.g., five minutes). Also listed is the number of sessions you should expect to take to reach proficiency (e.g., four sessions per week for 12 weeks). Proficiency means you should expect to have made a considerable gain and created a self-perpetuating habit that will provide continued improvement with time. This is followed by the recommended number of sessions to maintain the ability after proficiency is reached (e.g., two times per month). Note that these details are only given for the exercises and not the activities. Activities are exploratory and intended to be completed only once.
Some exercises have a “risk of injury” warning, which means that it is quite possible to hurt yourself while doing the exercise as described. Take great care with these and ensure that you read the warning and disclaimer section in the book’s Preface. Some exercises are given five stars, which means that I highly recommend them and that they are especially valuable as part of your retraining. Nearly every exercise is intended to be performed with paced diaphragmatic breathing, synchronized with a breathing metronome, as explained in Chapter 3. Alternatively, you can synchronize each exercise with the breathing pattern from Exercise 1.1.
My clients and I generally find that keeping a record of completed sessions is helpful and motivating. There are two worksheets at the end of this chapter to keep track of your initial progress. Each contains 14 key exercises and make it possible to log the number of times you have completed them. These are what I consider the book’s 28 most beneficial, five-star exercises. You can complete a three-month crash course in Program Peace by performing 14 exercises two days per week over the course of 12 weeks. Each week, you can alternate between worksheets 1 and 2. Completing all 14 exercises in a worksheet takes less than an hour, and there is no pressure to complete these on consecutive days or weeks.
This book also has a companion workbook called Program Peace: Exercise Manual and Journal, which comes complete with daily entries and a calendar in which you can record the exercises you have completed as part of a 12-week regimen. It is not necessary, but it is helpful and can be downloaded for free from the website or purchased online as a hard copy.
Using Program Peace by Yourself and with Others
Strangers aren’t the only ones who want us to use submissive displays. The people closest to us positively reinforce our endearing behavior, rewarding us for acting in non-threatening ways. They also punish assertive behavior, chastening us for acting self-assured. However, we cannot be mad at people for doing this to us because, whether aware of it or not, we do the same to others. It is an unconscious human instinct. We are constantly using body language to check and balance each other, and in doing so, we are mutually denigrated. Tearing each other down instead of building each other up is a waste of time and energy that ultimately programs our brains for sadness and our bodies for disease.
If you immediately start practicing the activities in this book in social situations, they will be feeble. People will recognize this and may attempt to punish you for being what they may interpret as rude. When I first started practicing, some acquaintances were confused by the new way I carried myself because my assertiveness was not fully fledged. For this reason, it helps to begin developing these postures alone. Start in your room, while driving, or as you take a walk. Build up to active social engagement slowly. Once it is evident that your dominant behaviors have become ingrained, people will not question them. By practicing alone, you can build yourself a stolid countenance that is so convincing that it is beyond reproach.
Alternatively, most of the exercises here can be performed with a close friend or in a group, and I encourage you to do so after first practicing them on your own. Fostering a low-stakes environment will make it dramatically easier to bring your new postures into the wider world. To this end, I recommend that you start by discussing the ideas in this book with close friends and family. You can create an understanding with your loved ones that your relationship is better off without submissive signaling. Instead of making each other weaker, you can train each other to feel comfortable and at ease in strength. Ask your roommate or spouse to walk around your home like they own the place. Tell them to expect you to do the same.
If you don’t have this discussion with the people close to you, they may become disheartened, not understanding why you seem different. However, if you explain the practice to them, you can transform them whether they perform the program’s specific exercises or not. When they see you relaxed, standing straight, and speaking in a powerful voice, they will find themselves mirroring you without even thinking about it.
Program Peace will give you the knowledge and exercises you need to progress to a point where you have the strength of personality to dominate everyone in your life. But you don’t want to dominate people. Domination is an aggressive attempt to get someone to submit. It is abusive and will repel even your close friends and family. You simply want to be dominant. Being dominant doesn’t stop others from also being dominant. It’s not a competition. Domination is one-sided and aggressive, but dominance is not. So that we are clear on the difference, for the final section of this chapter, let’s more clearly define aggression.
Dominant Nonverbals Make Aggression Unnecessary
A very early version of this book that I started working on in my late teens set out to describe the many costs of aggression. I saw aggression as a pitiful coping tactic that is often rewarded in the short term but, ultimately, results in negativity. I saw it as a vestigial instinct and a heuristic that people employ inflexibly and far too frequently. I felt that by living my life without aggression, I reaped many benefits. I wanted to share with others how to use diplomacy and a “nice guy” approach to navigate difficult social situations.
However, to avoid appearing aggressive, I accentuated my subordination displays and debilitated myself through intense self-handicapping. I spent so much energy placating people and repressing my personality that I became perpetually distressed. In trying to let go of aggressiveness, I had also unwittingly lost my assertiveness. But this is only because I was confusing the two.
Much of this book is about how to perceive the distinction between aggression and assertion so you can act confidently, knowing you are maintaining your ground without threatening others. What do assertion and aggression mean to you? In the animal behavior literature, the word “assertion” is constructive while “aggression” is destructive. An animal chasing down its prey is acting assertively because it needs to eat. An animal hurting another without benefit to itself is being aggressive. In mammals, the brain pathways controlling aggression, like fighting members of your species, are entirely distinct from the brain pathways for searching out and obtaining prey.15
For example, a cat pursuing a rat does not hiss or arch its back. The active brain areas reflect hunger rather than anger.16 If you were to wipe out the aggression and anger systems of a carnivore’s brain, it could still be a stone-cold predator. On the other hand, when a cat is aggressive toward another cat, it is almost always impelled by fear.17 Aggression is a destructive use of force that is rooted in trauma and insecurity. If more people knew this basic neurological truth, they likely wouldn’t praise aggressiveness or confuse aggression with assertion.
At its core, this book is about being assertive without being aggressive. That means being self-possessed but also kind at the same time. It is difficult. I have spent my life trying to be both but have only come close in the last few years. Many people see being “assertive” and being “nice” as two distinct modes that are incompatible or mutually exclusive. Religious leaders tell us to be nice at the expense of being assertive. Dating coaches and business gurus tell us to be assertive at the expense of being nice. Like most stressed primates, we mistakenly believe that we are forced to choose between these two options.
Because our psychological schemas for assertiveness are often conflated with those for aggression, many people find it impossible to be one without the other. This means that as soon as they start acting non-submissive, they inadvertently also start being intrusive, pushy, and unkind. They can’t help it; they have never learned to make this fundamental distinction. Once you can discern between assertion and aggression, you can be powerful without malice. You can simultaneously be confident and friendly, poised and thoughtful, dominant and pure of heart. The key is exhibiting incorrigibly courageous body language while still having your intentions in the right place. Ultimately, you want to make your nonverbals ruthless, uncompromising, and unapologetic, but you want to temper this by making your words humble, considerate, and affectionate.
Mammals that don’t feel threatened don’t get angry. They also don’t threaten others. As we will discuss in the next chapter, aggression usually follows desperation. It is a form of compensation for the inability to be calm while being assertive. In fact, in primate literature, aggression is often characterized as “submissive threat.” This indicates that threats come from monkeys that feel vulnerable or are trying too hard not to be submissive. Think of the times when you have been really aggressive in the past. You felt threatened and were breathing in a shallow, distressed manner. Correct? It is the straight jacket of stress, muscle tension, pain, and breathlessness that causes us to lash out. In preparing us for confrontation, it makes us confrontational.
Learning to breathe slowly, deeply, and on long intervals will help you develop emotional maturity. Doing it in social situations will make you hardened to threats, immune to being dominated, exempt from defensive sentimentality, and unsusceptible to feeling offended. Once you use Program Peace to train yourself to breathe easily and stop sending submissive displays, you will no longer have to choose between being assertive and doing the right thing. This is because the combination of the two will come with ease.
Chapter 1: Bullet Points
- Submission and aggression are highly detrimental and we want to replace them with assertiveness and playfulness.
- All mammals use submissive displays to show subordination to more dominant animals. They do this to reduce social conflict over food, sex, and other resources.
- Humans use submissive displays, too, often just to be friendly.
- We commonly use suboptimal body language because we are afraid that, otherwise, we might come across as too aggressive.
- It is difficult to stop using submissive displays because they become habitual, and the people around us come to expect them.
- Your composure, posture, and breathing style are all products of your social environment.
- Ongoing submissive displays lead to muscle tension that is apparent to others. The chronic muscular strain caused by the display becomes a badge of self-perceived low status.
- As you perform the Program Peace exercises, I think you will be surprised by how much and how often you use suboptimal body language due to modesty.
- We all suffer from this to different degrees, and it causes suboptimal functioning of various muscles and organs. It also causes chronic pain, which contributes to depression and anxiety.
- Our attempts to stop acting submissive and make our behavior more dominant are fear-inducing and cause us to breathe shallowly.
- Shallow, distressed breathing is a submissive display.
- Ask yourself how the following things affect your breathing: being isolated, being shunned, being attacked, being put down verbally, being put down nonverbally, being judged.
- Using diaphragmatic breathing while practicing dominant displays and postures can make them very comfortable and make nonverbal assertiveness a new default.
- Replacing submissive behaviors with assertive ones will improve how you feel, the way others perceive you, and how you get along with them.
- Dominant animals are the most assertive, and submissive animals are the most aggressive. This should inspire us to be assertive without being aggressive. It requires that we learn to retain our composure and learn not to allow provocation or threat to affect the face, voice, spine, or breath.
- This chapter is the first step in helping you reconceptualize yourself as dominant, pure of heart, slow to anger, and not easily offended.
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