“You do not need to defend against the intrusions of others, there is no pressure on you to defend yourself. Recognize that they intrude upon themselves.” — Eckhart Tolle (1948)
We Act in Uncivil Ways to Increase Our Serotonin
Humans, like other primates, are constantly testing one another in an often-unconscious attempt to either raise their serotonin levels or reduce someone else’s. We are driven to do it because putting others down can give us a little neurochemical boost. The tendency is instinctual but it can become addictive and sadistic. It is not psychologically healthy to belittle our friends, family members, and coworkers for little hits of pleasure. Neither is it healthy to fail to recognize when others do this to us. I think of this as the “struggle for serotonin” and it is going on in schools, homes, and workplaces everywhere.
Workplace disharmony has been documented by recent research to be a substantial economic cost for American business that is largely preventable but rarely addressed.1 One in five people claim to be the targets of occupational abuse at least once a week, and ten percent said they witness it every day. Mistreatment does not rouse workers into better focus; it actually impedes their performance. People that have been treated cruelly or thoughtlessly show decreased ability to perform simple tasks, distracted attention, impaired working memory, diminished creativity, and reduced helping behaviors.2 Inhumane behavior is virulent and negatively affects all involved: the targets, the offenders, the firm, and its customers. After reading about what incivility does in a workplace, imagine what it does to a circle of friends or a family. Let’s talk about how to stop it.
We Provoke Each Other Constantly
“As a solid rock is not shaken by the wind, even so the wise are not ruffled by praise or blame.” — Buddha (563 BCE – 483 BCE
When I was young, my mother taught me the expression “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. It is ubiquitous. People try to activate the other person’s amygdala, sympathetic system, and inferiority instincts to control them, however temporarily. A large proportion of our social interactions revolve around testing each other’s composure with jokes, slights, and provocations. When my mom told me, “Don’t let him get your goat,” she was underscoring my responsibility to safeguard my temper and ignore people’s attempts to fluster me.
Etymologists believe that the expression comes from the once-common practice of keeping goats with racehorses. Racehorses are high-strung animals due, in part, to the unnatural levels of strain placed on their muscles. Goats were often used as companion animals to help keep racehorses calm. They were also commonly placed with dairy cows for the same reason. Goats naturally have an exceptionally low outward expression of stress. They are not the most beautiful animals, neither are they the smartest, nor largest, but they are great at keeping their cool. I think this should be a lesson for us; we don’t have to be the biggest or best to be the calmest. We may be far from being the dominant individual in a group, but we can still be so well composed that it inspires everyone else.
There are many physical traits in animals that exist to convey social dominance. These include plumage coloration in Harris sparrows, horn size in mountain sheep, graying in the mountain gorilla, and square jaws in humans. It is common to assume that flashy traits, imposition, musculature, and physical strength make a person dominant. But it is really emotional strength that makes people dominant. Emotional stability keeps people from “getting your goat.” It is the only status symbol that is universally, albeit unconsciously, recognized as more important than physical size, looks, reputation, or money. Often, people with great physical strength are accorded respect. This, in turn, helps them build confidence and emotional strength. However, the physically weakest person can certainly have the most control over their emotions. I think of emotional strength as the ability to exhibit sturdiness in the face of negativity.
Emotional weakness starts when someone feels violated by someone else and then tries to fight that feeling like any subjugated monkey. The problem is, if others can tell that you have been stung, they are going to want to sting you again. Children high in rejection sensitivity are more likely to be bullied. Those kids who do not readily feel rejected are much less likely to be victimized. Envisioning yourself as the underdog or the victim is counterproductive because it sensitizes you, 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. What would it feel like to have zero rejection sensitivity? Can you imagine yourself as inviolable?
Treat everyone like you have known them forever and like they can’t easily hurt you. See them as playful monkeys that are bluff-charging, sham-sneering, pretend-scratching, and feign-biting. Only the primates with low serotonin are hurt emotionally by fraternization. All the things that people used to do that made you feel enraged, reframe them as rough-and-tumble monkey play.
We Contradict Each Other Compulsively
If you carefully analyze the way people speak, it is almost shocking how much we contradict one another. Most people are obnoxiously argumentative, disputatious contrarians. For many listeners, the first thing that pops into their mind is a way to poke holes in your line of reasoning. They look for any suitable exception to what you are saying. They often are not even emotionally invested in the contradictions that they place against you. They are merely playing devil’s advocate, and throwing out red herrings, to stifle and trip you up. When people do this to you, they are testing your limits and trying to push you down into the lower echelons. They are expecting to feel good and get away with it after they discredit you. But if we recognize the ploy and respond skillfully to it, we can help them reduce this dysfunctional behavior that is certainly hurting them more than it is helping. We can do this by responding without any hint of pain.
When others attempt to shoot you down, try to see what is right about what they are saying while pointing out how it doesn’t invalidate what you were saying. Do this with peace in your heart. Remember that you need not get defensive when someone hastily comes up with an irrelevant exception to a statement you made. 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 healthy person does.
We should be looking for what is right in what others are saying to provide support. This is much more constructive for them and us. 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.” Give people’s ideas a chance to marinate in your mind, then help make those ideas better. If you strongly disagree or have something to teach them, prove that you are comfortable in disagreeing by being polite yet assertive. Explain where you agree prior to disagreeing, but don’t disagree just to disagree.
Never Fail a Confidence Test
People’s jokes, contradictions, and snide comments are “confidence tests” to assess how cool you are under pressure. This is like a dog’s first bark. It is a probe used to assess your level of composure. These tests exclaim, “I’m pretty sure that I can break you down, so I’m going to say something rude and see how you respond.” If you don’t do anything about it, you will 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. Crying, complaining, or trying to gain sympathy are other ways to fail. Flinging out an insult or becoming furious will create more hostility or get yourself excluded from the group. This is because responding with anger just shows that you are volatile, threatened, and emotionally immature. But if you can respond using the challenge response rather than the threat response, you pass the confidence test with flying colors.
To quote Schopenhauer: “Every reproach can hurt only to the extent that it hits the mark.” Thus, when you lose your cool, and distressed breathing kicks in, it becomes clear that the person’s comment resonated with you. The only surefire way to win is to react assertively and refrain from showing any hint of discomfort in response to your confidence being tested. Don’t search other people’s words for things to be offended by. Don’t scrutinize voicemails, text messages, or tone of voice for threats or put-downs. There is no reason to investigate.
Confidence testing is primal behavior. Friends, lovers, coworkers, strangers, men, and women alike do it. Sometimes it takes the form of creating drama out of a tiny issue just so that they can scope your ability to withstand stress. They are trying to see what they can get away with. This may take the form of impatience, discourtesy, or asking for endless small favors. Most people fail these tests because they cannot recognize them for what they are. Once you realize that you’re dealing with a confidence test, however, it is very easy to pass.
The best way to handle confidence tests is to see them for what they are: monkey business that is not worthy of your stress response. Treat them as jokes and make humorous comments in return. You can turn a confidence test back around playfully or you can even make a self-deprecating joke to show how unflustered you are. The absolute best way to deal with confidence tests is to accept them as invitations to play, as discussed in the next chapter. The second-best way is simply to retain your composure.
Recompose Yourself When You Feel Disrespected
“The mental arrow shot from another’s bow is practically harmless unless our own thought barbs it.” — Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910)
People provoke each other because they want to compare bodily pain. When you feel disrespected by someone, your heart rate, blood pressure, and general level of discomfort all go up. Your vagal tone and HRV come down. When someone contradicts you with a trifling point, they are looking to see how your face, voice, and breathing will change in response to this new stressor. They are expecting to take your breath away from you. When they make a haughty innuendo or an untoward comment, they want to see how you will tolerate it physiologically. Recomposing yourself is the best way to stop reinforcing their transgressive behavior. When someone says something that crosses your boundaries, ensure that you:
- Are breathing slowly and deeply through your nose
- Are not squinting and your eyebrows are not raised
- Are not sneering at all and your face is limp
- Relax your spine, gut, and vocal tract
- Retract your neck and lower your shoulders
Responding in this way removes all positive reinforcers, dissuading the offending party from provoking you again. If they disrespect you and your eyes remain wide while you respond calmly in a deep and steady voice, they are going to feel stupid. When you react to someone in a way that is otherwise non-optimal, you relinquish your 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, especially in the face of provocation.
We get mad at other people for “making” us lose our composure. However, we should be angry over our own unconscious rules for what makes us tighten certain body parts. Once we change those rules, other people can’t upset us. When I get mad at something that someone did, I remind myself that I am only mad because my own rules caused my breath to shorten, my nasopharynx to tighten, and my face to wince. No one else “made” me do these things. I did. Breathing with the diaphragm will automatically create the right mindset for dealing with power politics. It will allow the conflict to pass right through you without impacting you. Even taking a single 10 second inhalation 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 large-scale crises will now be subtle victories. I used to look nice and act tough. Like most people, I was doing it backward. Instead, we want to look tough and act nice. Playing submissive nonverbally and dominant verbally makes you a servant to the hierarchical game and turns you into a jerk. Instead, you want to be tightfisted with your nonverbals but easygoing with your words. This gives the impression that you are a well-composed team player rather than an anxious and alienated loner.
If you tense anything, let it be the procerus, pulling your eyebrows down. In other words, when someone is mean or rude to you, try frowning. You practiced this highly dominant expression in Chapters 4 and 8. You can also flare your nostrils. Then, without saying anything angry, ask them to clarify their statement: “Okay, explain that one to me.”
The primary way I show others 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 abusive people see that you are unagitated and uninterested, it will take them down a peg. Shrug it off—literally. When they see you shrug, they will realize that they are powerless to upset you.
Many of the men 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 often encourage those who subordinate themselves to do so even further. This is not necessarily spiteful because they usually don’t even realize what they are doing. Regrettably, I have noticed myself unconsciously helping people play a subordinate role. I try to catch myself. We should treat and speak to everyone, including people such as the homeless and developmentally disabled, as equals, friends, and trusted confidantes.
The best way to cultivate inner freedom is to learn to relax around petty and aggressive people. 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 degrading, they are just flinging feces. Lucky for us, words can’t stain our clothes.
No matter what, if you have more composure, you will win the argument because you look like you don’t care too much. Once they realize they have no access to your physical pain, they will let up. You want people to be able to sense that you are not interested in their antics.They will recognize that they cannot blame you for not being pulled in by shenanigans. You want to communicate: “We’re not playing that game of scrutinizing the things we say to each other for slights. Trust me, I’m simply not going to intentionally offend you.”
Underreact to Their Offenses
“God gives nothing to those who keep their arms crossed.” — West African Proverb
Aside from the struggle for serotonin, your average person acts like a jackass 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 look strong, they become offensive. Because they see being nice as a form of self-handicapping, they think that they must be mean so as not to handicap. This is a fundamental socio-cognitive error. You can be the strongest, most ambitious version of yourself with zero negativity. However, remember that it is an entirely normal response for other people to resist your efforts to become more assertive. So, roll with any resistance.
When someone is rude to you and you are not rude back, you pull the rug out from under them. By not allowing them to incite your pain, you expose theirs. They may then use a strategy 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 sidestep it; you don’t even need to acknowledge their misdeed. Feel free to ignore it. It is our right as humans to completely ignore other people’s abusive behaviors if we don’t do it in anger and if we are willing to engage the person in an alternate topic or activity.
Ignore rudeness without brooding or becoming sullen. The moment you do this, the other person will realize that you are choosing not to respond because they put you in a position where you didn’t have the option to respond in a nice way. After ignoring them, give them another chance to engage whenever they want. You can alternatively ignore the rude part of what they said and continue addressing only the positive or intellectual side of their position. Do this magnanimously and they will realize that you gave them a pass. They will also respect you for it. Even if they don’t mention it, they can’t help but realize, “Wow, he could’ve taken that opportunity to strike back or discredit me but chose not to.” Don’t let them pull you down to their level. That’s the first step in winning them over.
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 being 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. They may get stuck in that cycle for a while, and that’s fine. Eventually, they will recognize that you intend to act as equals. When this happens organically, it is usually the starting point for an alliance or a friendship. Why not accelerate the process?
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 enlightened is that they cannot be provoked or argued with. They are open to discussion and debate, of course, but not argument. The next activity asks you to explore how you can stand up for what you believe without losing your composure.
Meditate on the term “unassailable,” which means unable to be attacked 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 underreact, but you take responsibility for what you may have done wrong. By being happy to completely own up to any mistakes or any trouble 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 such things to them. Make yourself honor-bound to say these things whenever they are applicable.
Be at ease with everyone, from the discourteous to the genteel, and treat everyone as if you have known them your whole life. This means when they say something with a pinprick embedded in it to get a rise out of you, act like you have heard the same line a thousand times. You are unfazed and remain sociable with full parasympathetic and vagal tone. At the outset, you will need to override any impulses to respond in kind. Soon, it will become automatic, and you will experience how and why being unfazed is much more powerful than lashing out.
Set Your Expectations of Others to Zero
Competition and aggression are relatively inescapable. It is essential to come to terms with the fact that, at any moment, anyone could say something that will rile you up or make you feel demeaned, disregarded, or disrespected. Everyone, even (if not especially) your closest friends harbor instincts and impulses to dominate you. Ask yourself: “Am I open to being exasperated by anyone at any time?” The answer (without being jaded or cynical) should be: “No, I govern my own emotional reactions. I’m prepared for the worst, even though I treat others as though I only expect the best from them.”
We’ve got to remember not to take offenses personally. When someone says something snide, you might find yourself immediately starting to wonder if the offender doesn’t like your face, your personality, or the way you talk. If a person is rude to you, they are probably rude to everyone. It reflects on them, not you. You need to resist the tendency to ask, “Why me?” One of the best approaches to regaining peace in your life is to avoid taking any personal offense.
Aggression is Inherently Weak
Aggressive acts are almost always mutually destructive in the sense that they hurt all parties involved. Any positive outcomes won by aggression are usually “pyrrhic,” meaning they are achieved at a high cost, often to the point of negating or outweighing any benefits. Tell yourself that there are no “acceptable losses” with aggression and that because it damages everyone, aggression is self-defeating.
Aggression is violent in tone and contains elements of despair, defensiveness, self-pity, fear, and desperation. It invokes and is invoked by the threat response. It is ironic that people often act aggressively to gain respect but only rarely do others respect aggressive people. This is because aggression is inherently weak. Aggression turns the world into a zoo and a “struggle for serotonin.”
As discussed in Chapter 1, there is a big difference between acting dominant and trying to dominate others. Cultivating dominant nonverbal behavior is good for your health—it helps you avoid stress. But trying to dominate others is just another source of conflict and, as such, a source of stress. Studies with monkeys and apes have shown that stress, as measured by elevations in the stress hormone cortisol, is often more pronounced in individuals attempting to dominate than in their targets.3 In trying to subject others, these primates damage their health. People that are constantly trying to assert their rank by being aggressive are similarly exposing themselves to cortisol, inflammation, tachycardia, hyperventilation, bracing, and so much more. The clear implication is that the best way to free ourselves from our egos is to cultivate a non-submissive personality while abstaining from attempts to dominate.
Heal Your Composure with the Most Dominant People in Your Life
Your relationship with your parents is primordial. Everyone picks up aggressive, nonoptimal, nonpeaceful tendencies from their folks. These are usually the hardest to break. Also, the body language and mannerisms you feel comfortable using around Mom and Dad set a foundation for how you act with everyone else. Because so much of our formative time was spent with them, we hold our posture and countenance as if in their presence. It is important that you feel comfortable using dominant, non-submissive body language around your mother, father, and siblings. As soon as you stop bracing your body in a way that is subservient to your family members, you will gain new freedom. The next time you find yourself on a car ride with your parents, family members, or anyone you are uncomfortable around, discretely pull out your breath metronome and teach your body to inhale and exhale freely in their presence.
Primates respect gradation in rank, meaning that a baboon will act much more subservient around a group member five stations above him than it will around a member one station above him. The way you hold yourself around the most dominant people in your life similarly affects you. Think of the largest, strongest, most charismatic, and most successful people in your life. You should act like there is no pressure on you to send them tribute. Take special note of which aspects of your body language are non-optimal when you are with them and work on these. Even when they are not around you may find yourself trying to convince them of things, monitoring their moodiness, and rehashing old disagreements. If this is the case, your thoughts about them are likely influencing you to hold submissive postures. Let all of this go.
Don’t Feel Compelled to Sacrifice to Dominant Individuals
“Care about people´’s approval and you will be their prisoner.” ― Lao Tzu (571 BCE – Unknown)
Subordinate apes often seek reassurance by putting a finger in the dominant animal’s mouth. They are risking their intact finger to pay their respects. This is like a sacrificial offering. Monkeys do this, too. Among 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 communicates: “If you don’t trust me, you can chew my hand off.” Similarly, it is very common for humans to sacrifice disproportionate amounts of time and energy to curry a dominant person’s favor. 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.4 In experimental settings, male monkeys are willing to 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 as well. Have you noticed your tendency to search out high-status members of the same sex and observe them jealously? Do you seek out pictures of female hindquarters and buff dudes on social media? Don’t secretly worship the bodybuilders, the CEOs, the fitness models, or the celebrities. Giving them undue attention keeps you locked in a hierarchical mindset, so don’t pay them any more attention than you would anyone else.
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 (1807-1882)
In your mind, think of discourteous people as unsophisticated people. Remember that the most offensive ones are likely to have had extreme life challenges such as early trauma or abuse. Further, inappropriate aggression can be a symptom of brain damage, PTSD, or a range of neurological or psychological disorders. When someone is inconsiderate, remind yourself that they may have serious maladjustments and that, more often than not, they could use your help. Everyone is a jerk in their own eccentric way due to their unique pattern of deficits in social intelligence. Don’t be surprised or upset by their idiosyncratic manner of being discourteous just because you haven’t gotten used to it yet. Most people realize that they are rough around the edges. Many even want to change but find it difficult or do not understand how. Unfortunately, their uncouth behavior causes people to be rude back to them, perpetuating their problem. We don’t want to perpetuate people’s issues. We want to help resolve them.
Aggression derives from weakness, pain, unfortunate experiences, and mental shortcomings, so we should respond to it with empathy. Those who want to humiliate others have low self-esteem themselves. It is sad that their priorities, judgments, and word choices are impoverished. Had you experienced everything they did, perhaps you would have turned out just like them. Think of quarrelsome people as flamboyant actors who are suffering offstage. Most everyone is a sob story, and we are all walking wounded. Don’t let wounds beget more wounds. Everyone you dislike just needs a little recognition, validation, and friendliness. When you give them a chance, odds are they will end up making you revise your opinion of them.
Another thing we should keep in mind is that what we take to be premeditated, personal affronts tend to be defense mechanisms or, even more innocuously, 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 but help them if you can. Let your natural assertiveness and your compassion for them work together.
Anger and Rage
“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty.” — Proverbs 16:32
The brain’s rage system starts at the medial areas of the amygdala that perceive anger-inducing stimuli. From there they proceed to the areas that act on anger (including the stria terminalis, the medial hypothalamus, and the periaqueductal gray). 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 similar to those that evoke fear in the amygdala (e.g., loud sounds and fast movement). As with fear, adrenaline, cortisol, and pain heighten anger, whereas endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin halt it.5
In all mammals that have been tested, rage can be evoked by electrically stimulating these brain areas. We know they find it aversive because lab animals will go to lengths to avoid electrical stimulation of the rage system. When the electrodes in their rage circuit are fed a current, the animal will spring toward whatever object is in front of it and bite. The attack becomes more intense as the current is increased. Humans report that the stimulation of rage via electrodes placed in the brain is a terrible experience. They tend to clench their jaw and sneering muscles and report feelings of intense hatred.
Electrical stimulation of rage causes small-brained mammals like mice to attack inanimate objects. More intelligent mammals like cats and dogs won’t attack an object because they understand that this is meaningless, but they will attack the nearest living animal. Primates show a further level of abstraction. Stimulating the rage system in apes and monkeys will cause them to vent their rage toward animals below them in the hierarchy but not above.
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 suggests that we don’t want to completely suppress anger. However, many of us were expected to suppress all outward manifestations of anger by our parents and teachers. I believe that many people fall down the well of anxiety simply because they are reluctant to demonstrate anger. Convince yourself that it is fine to use anger in the form of righteous indignation to stand up for yourself or what you believe in. In Exercise 8.2 we discovered how briefly feigning anger can clear fear from your face. Used in the next exercise it will clear it from your chest.
Don’t expect people to read your mind or recognize when things are not in your favor. If something bothers you, speak up. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Say what you want to say. You should be at a point in your life where you don’t feel like you have to act like anybody but yourself. Make sure that you establish non-negotiable boundaries. Don’t tolerate intrusions upon your health, family, morals, or psychological well-being. Keep in mind though that you must take responsibility if your assertive words or actions ruffle other people’s feathers.
Extreme anger in animals is often called a “red-zone” case. You cannot reason with an animal whose rage circuit is fully active. It is so focused that injuring it will only intensify its ferocity. Its objective to kill overpowers any pain you might inflict. It would rather die than cease its attack. When the rage circuit is activated in a human, you cannot argue or reason with them. Their bodily pain launches a sustained, uninhibited verbal offensive. Don’t ever feel like you have to pit yours against theirs. Rather, when someone gets angry at you, think of it as an opportunity to explain your true intentions and give them the information they need to feel less threatened. There is a good chance that their accusation is totally valid given that they don’t have the information they need to see it from your point of view. Also, a person cannot stay mad at you if you don’t get defensive. Like a truly dominant mammal, tackle the situation with assertion, not infuriation.
In Chapter 1, we learned that the neurological systems for predation and aggression are distinct. When a predatory mammal attacks prey, its rage circuit is entirely inactive. However, when a mammal attacks a member of its species out of anger, the rage circuit lights up. Be a person that doesn’t attack members of its species. Rather, attack the misunderstanding at hand. Imagine being a cat stalking in the grass without an ounce of anger or aggression aroused, calmly approaching your prey completely naïve of negative intent. Wouldn’t it be more effective to use this manner in a hostile social situation than outrage or defensiveness?
You might ask whether avoiding anger will cause suppressed emotion. It is commonly supposed that if people suppress anger toward others, they will end up “bottling it all inside.” But this act of bottling is equivalent to nothing more than muscle tension, something you have now been trained to recognize and release. As long as you do not start bracing and continue to breathe diaphragmatically, you are not suppressing anger. You are deflecting it. And this is healthy. As any endocrinologist will tell you, getting angry is like taking a small dose of slow acting poison. It raises blood pressure, strains the heart, damages arteries, and causes cholesterol-filled fat cells to empty into the bloodstream.
As with fear, every time you become adversarial, the emotion fortifies related brain pathways, making you a more petulant person. Every time you “indulge” in negativity, you encourage tiny incremental alterations in your neural architecture that make it harder to be positive.6 Conversely, every time you transcend anger, your capability to rise above it is increased. So, the next time you find yourself using your imagination to plan a tirade or spew venom, just stop and move on to something else.
Illustration 24.1: A. Gorillas fighting; B. Dogs fighting; C. Dog with tail between the legs.
Use Proximity, Touch, and Eye Contact for Reconciliation
Physical conflicts are frequent in both monkeys and apes. Heart rates skyrocket, suppressed anger is unleashed, and the fur can fly. What happens afterward is what is important. Most conflicts, even violent ones, don’t create distance because the animals tend to be intimate soon after the aggressive incident. They want to make up. As with our hunter-gatherer ancestors, chimps in a troop are usually stuck with each other, so reconciliation is necessary.
After a fight, chimps first seek out eye contact. The former opponents may 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, then approaches for mutual grooming. Sometimes 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 close physical contact is what makes reconciliation possible.
As they groom and make up, their heart rates and breathing rates return to ordinary levels. If the two primates don’t spend time in close proximity, giving their hearts a chance to calm down 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 immediate presence. If you have relationships that you want to heal, all it may take is a one-on-one “chill-out” session involving togetherness, eye contact, physical touch, and mutual diaphragmatic breathing.
Making Your Calm-Assertive Energy Composed and Nonconfrontational
Animal trainer 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 when an owner leverages this aura with their pets, it convinces them to trust and value the owner’s authority.7 He explains how even a small child can gain command over a 150-pound Pitbull if they exude calm-assertive energy. To wield it, you must appear austere, like you have strong expectations that others will respect your boundaries.
Millan 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 tend to develop these behaviors when their owner is neither calm nor assertive.
Most dogs will gladly accept their owner’s dominance unless they believe that the owner’s energy is too weak. Dogs know that when a leader has wimpy energy, the “pack” is compromised. For its safety and your protection, it will try to pick up the slack by asserting its dominance. The same goes for children. Many well-intentioned parents are unwittingly submissive to their offspring and end up with aggressive, frustrated kids. The same goes for everyone in your life. If you are not using calm-assertive energy, they will want to keep you down so that you don’t compromise the chain of command that is so important to survival. Thus, your coworkers, friends, and family have instincts that tell them they don’t want to be your equal. Because they want the tribe to have the most strong-minded leader, they prefer to either lead or follow someone stronger.
Near the end of his book, The Ape in the Corner Office, Richard Conniff concludes: “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.” He is right. When the pecking order is stable in groups of chickens, the hens fight less and lay more eggs. Fighting is vastly reduced in chimps where the dominance hierarchy is established. This is also true in humans. For example, when dominance roles are well defined in a business merger, it usually goes smoothly, but if roles are left undefined, there is much more friction.8 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 common goals and the better good.
I mostly agree with Conniff. But I have this to add: Let us make our posture and body language as stable and secure as possible, our speech as rational and friendly as possible. Beyond this, let us not try to force our eminence on anyone. Instead, we should let others make inferences about relative dominance without attempting to persuade them or twist their arm.
Thus, I recommend using calm-assertive energy combined with a non-dominating/non-submissive demeanor to convince others (against their instincts) that the best strategy is to be equals. 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 and as if they have never done anything wrong. We will build on this in the next section.
“The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.” — Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Although I think we should be quick to forgive, we must let wrongdoers know what they did was unacceptable. If someone wrongs you, address it assertively and immediately. Tell them which of your boundaries they crossed and by how much. Even tell them exactly how you expect them to proceed. However, if they are not doing anything wrong in the next moment, treat them as if they have never done anything wrong in their life. This proves to them that you trust them to improve. This involves not saying things like: “You never listen to me,” “You’re always doing that,” “You don’t care about anyone else,” and “You’ll never change.” Keeping score or holding grudges only leads to bitterness on both sides.
Don’t Punish Because People Don’t Sympathize with Your Aggression
No one is going to perceive your anger as valid if it is directed toward them. Even if you feel like you are justified in getting angry, as long as it is directed toward them, they will perform whatever mental gymnastics necessary to frame you as the victimizer. You may see your actions as retaliation, but they see it as arbitrary abuse. That is why I don’t chastise even when I have a clear opportunity. Resorting to belligerent tactics is the best way to provide an 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 stern attention, compassion, and love is.
When someone acts rude, treat them as an animal that you are training that has not performed a trick properly. Anyone that has trained a pet knows that you withhold the food, you wait, you keep talking to it, and you just give it another chance. You don’t take punitive action against the animal unless it has physically harmed you or someone else. It is not our place to punish anyone unless they have physically harmed us. Cultivate the same kind of patience with people that you might use with an abused pet. Be a lenient but firm master.
Recognize Psychopathy in Yourself and Others
In computer science, there is a concept known as “device hardening” by which a computer’s vulnerabilities are reduced by various means. These constrain the available methods of attack by hackers and viruses. Such methods include changing default passwords, disabling unnecessary services, applying patches, closing network ports, and setting up firewalls and intrusion prevention systems. Reading this book has put you through a process of hardening. The exercises provide stress tests and stress proofing. You have been fortified, and the vulnerabilities in your head, thorax, and abdomen will continue to be reduced as long as you take part in the exercises. This hardening process has strengthened you but also made you susceptible to psychopathic behavior. This is why I want to address the nature of psychopathy so that some readers do not let their newfound composure corrupt them.
In this section, I will try to convince you that we have something to learn from the psychopath. They have a form of strength that we want for ourselves 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. Many psychopaths are serial bullies. They often parasitize the people around them, constantly committing offenses, many of which are non-arrestable. They exhibit Machiavellian self-interest and are often not concerned with the psychological damage they inflict on their targets. They are frequently negativistic, impatient, intemperate, embittered, oppositional, over-competitive, petulant, and mean-spirited. They can be easily slighted, quickly disillusioned, and have a penchant for wanting to punish others. They use pain as an instrument of power and leave people worse off than they found them. We don’t want to follow suit.
The people that I know personally on the psychopathy spectrum 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. But no one that I know who is proud of being mean is respectable. And I know several. They are all socially disabled hypocrites. They all cross their close friends and family more than anyone else, and their behavior inevitably results in tragedy.
Psychopaths make up only around 1% of the population. However, each of us can become psychopathic in certain contexts. People are more likely to callously abuse others in situations when they become angry or when they believe they are dominant. When someone is calmly rude to you, they are attempting to be a cat toying with a mouse. In other words, they are trying to build the experience of being a predator with a total disregard for how it might be affecting you. Never let yourself be that mouse. If someone is psychopathic with you, I think it is fair to be psychopathic back. In the next few paragraphs, I will explain what I mean: that it is fair to be without empathy, although not sadistic.
The research literature on the psychology and neuroscience of psychopathy is extensive. To boil it down, psychopaths exhibit alterations in emotional brain areas that cause them to be callous and fearless. Interestingly, their amygdala can be utterly unresponsive to many types of social stressors. Psychopaths have reduced sympathetic responsiveness while looking at distressing pictures. The same is true when they look at pictures of other people in distress. This has caused researchers to conclude that they have a lack of empathy. They are poor at naming fearful emotional expressions.9 They also exhibit a diminished response to conditioned punishment, less fear, and reduced startle reflex to myriad startling stimuli.10 Social conflict doesn’t increase their heart rate or breathing rate, and does not cause them to brace. They are often reported to be charismatic and exhibit superficial charm. They are capable of these things because they do not feel pressured to self-handicap.
But none of these neurological predispositions toward insensitivity necessarily make them bad. A biological predisposition to being unafraid, in and of itself, doesn’t make the psychopath evil. Unfortunately, it often causes them to make social mistakes and flout norms. The people that they unintentionally hurt punish them for these mistakes. I believe the resulting constant conflict turns them into bad people over time. But the “bad” doesn’t derive from their innate fearlessness; the bad comes in if the repercussions of that fearlessness cause them to start taking delight in others’ pain.
Some people find pleasure in hurting others. These people show activity in the brain’s reward circuit (the ventral striatum) when shown videos depicting deliberate infliction of pain.11 When they watch someone maliciously prick another with a needle, they feel amusement and gratification. Some psychopaths exhibit this, but many do not. Psychopaths don’t necessarily want to hurt people, but they are willing to hurt them if they can get what they want. Psychopaths don’t feel another’s pain, sadists enjoy it. Reveling in another’s pain is known as sadism and schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude is defined as the feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about other people’s troubles. In German, it means “harm-joy.” Sadism is enjoyment in being cruel. Sadists don’t choose to feel satisfaction from someone else’s misfortune. It is neurological and usually derives from a combination of early experiences and 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 line in the sand.
You want to be psychopathic when it comes to the dominance hierarchy. You want to be stone-cold when people attack you. To be assertive, sometimes you need to throw excessive empathy out of the window. I am advocating a type of ruthlessness that is not destructive, where you don’t worry about what other people think of you, and your heart bleeds for no one. You are not doing anything wrong though because, outside of self-defense, you are too confident and compassionate to feel the desire to hurt others in revenge.
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 an exaggerated posture. I was trying to be a little cooler than I really was. Another 17-year-old in the parking lot didn’t like it. He said several unkind things to me, and I asked him to leave me alone. He followed me inside and continued to menace me. While I was standing in line to order food, 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 his hat. Without even pushing the brim back up, he immediately tilted his head upward so that he could see me and threw a swift right cross to my nose.
There are four things we can learn from this. First, I shouldn’t have pushed his hat down. It was the wrong thing to do. It leaped 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 second 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 emergency room doctors 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 this should be a lesson for all of us. Any act of 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 else’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.
Third, if you are going to walk around with optimal posture, you must be well-prepared to deal with people trying to call your bluff. I was assaulted because I had my chest puffed up. But I have since proved to myself that it is all in the way you do it. I walk around expressionless with my chest inflated and neck completely retracted all the time now. But I am not putting on airs, it is not a form of submissive threat, and I do it with no remorse but also with no animosity. No one seems to question it or get angry about it. To be honest, I’m not sure that I could pull it off in a penitentiary. But I can pull it off safely in any neighborhood in the world. I promise you that. And I promise that you can do it too. The key is just to do it without an ounce of anger in your heart.
Number four. As recounted in Chapter 8, 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 started having difficulty breathing through my nose. I resigned to being an obligate mouth breather. Contrary to what I assumed, however, my nasal passage hadn’t been narrowed by the damage. Rather, the disuse narrowed it.
After the nose break, it was packed with gauze for two weeks, 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, and at long enough intervals to make nose breathing tenable.
After the cascade of physical and social repercussions of being a mouth breather, I went from being moderately popular in high school to very unpopular in college. As recounted in Chapter 11, I recently forced myself to start breathing through my nose again, and it was difficult at first. Taping my mouth helped. Now it is second nature, and it helped me reclaim the calmness and composure of my youth.
Four interesting lessons from one traumatic incident. Funnily enough, it took me more than 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 unphased 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 slightly 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. Practicing a several head nods in front of a mirror will train you to nod reassuringly after a tense or unexpected encounter with a stranger.
Prepare yourself with dispassionate lines that will alleviate anger. These include: “Excuse me, friend,” “I’m not looking for any trouble,” or, simply, “Hello, may I help you?” Say something peaceful while breathing deeply. This will advertise that you are neither afraid nor angry. If the person looks upset and confronts 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 handshake.
What is the best way to shake hands? It is 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 and squeeze firmly. Don’t allow anyone to twist your wrist during the shake. Shake athletically from the elbow and linger for a moment. A firm handshake that moves fluidly up and down shows that you are not trembling. Much of the same goes for hugs. Hugs should be nourishing; long, firm, and without startling or any sudden involuntary movements.
Negative Physical Encounters
“If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.” — Epictetus (c. 50-135)
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 if 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 once they do, you have carte blanche. Fight fair, but fight with zest, gumption, and a determination to end the altercation quickly and with as little destructiveness as necessary. Keep in mind that you can be legally and financially liable for any injuries you cause and that if you gravely hurt the person or kill them, you could end up in jail for decades or even for the rest of your life.
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 avoid a fight is to show with your face that you are not scared at all and 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.” I have found that it can help to tell yourself that you do not fight civilians, just monsters, supervillains, evil robots, invading aliens, and extreme threats to good.
It can also help to stop thinking of physical combat as traumatic. Don’t fear it or give it more power than it deserves. People that fight frequently think little of it. Think of it as a right of passage or as a game that you are willing to play if necessary. It is an undertaking that serves as a final deciding factor in a dispute. Even if you lose, remain relaxed: “Hey, I lost, you got me.” or “Well, the fella whupped me pretty good, so I suppose he can have his way this time.” There should be no shame in declining to fight or in losing a fight.
Many people find themselves pulled into fights due to an immature sign of petulance on their faces. They are displaying an air of submissive threat. Primates generally make two kinds of threats: confident and subordinate. Subordinate threats are reckless. They come from a place of fear and pain and have startle embedded within them. Most threats in humans and primates are subordinate.
Monkeys will stare, jerk their head, lunge forward, or fake-charge to try to get another group member to submit. These are usually bluffs. Many wild animals will stop altogether if the other merely holds its ground. Even 14,000 pound charging elephants are known to turn away at the last second from a human standing calmly with planted feet. People relying on physical intimidation are looking for easy targets. It is the same when people try to criticize you. Those who crumble get picked on forever. Don’t be intimidated. Plant your feet. If you act afraid of a carnivorous mammal, this “forces” it to become more aggressive. If you act afraid of other people, it similarly “forces” them, instinctively, to persecute you further.
How would you act if you encountered a wolf or mountain lion on a hike? Ideally, 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 telling it you feel secure enough to claim and remain in your territory. You are communicating 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 others than they pose to you but that you have no desire or intent to harm.
If we can resolve to refrain from physical violence until it is the very last option, we can greatly reduce our 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 renouncing any form of violence toward any living being. It is a beautiful way to live life.
“A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men.” — Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
Because our brains expect that we will be actively competing for food and sex, they expect us to have enemies. Genetically prepared instincts influence us to take the closest thing they can find to an enemy and villainize them. This is also why, if you put two unfamiliar adult cats into a room, they will probably not get along. You might desperately want them to get along—they might be happier if they did—but, often, they cannot get past their reflexive defense mechanisms. This confused, displaced hostility is also present in the modern workplace, and home where conflict seems to be the norm. It is all too easy for values and prehistoric programming to clash. Anger often erupts out of an interaction between two people who both feel they are completely reasonable. As with the cats, this is largely neurological.
A large proportion of animals will attack their 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 didn’t recognize it, would you be offended by your own social displays? Could you get along with yourself?
Some animals see their reflections in the mirror and want to play. Isn’t that beautiful? Let us be that way. Why not carry ourselves in a way that influences others to be playful? We will delve into this in the next chapter.
Chapter Twenty-Four: Bullet Points
- Hostility is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and inflammation.
- There is no need to be right or make anyone else wrong.
- Don’t embed barbs in your comments.
- Never let anything anyone says cause you to beat yourself up from the inside.
- Use skillful assertion 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 rivals.
- You should never feel forced to choose between being a nice guy no one respects and being a jerk who gets everything he wants.
- When dealing with a difficult person, you want to sidestep their negativity and take the shortcut to the outcome that you want while remaining fair and equitable.
- Resist the emotional urge to take offense and pursue vengeance.
- Respond to provocation with calm non-contention.
- Handle conflict charismatically.
- Never respond as if you are reacting to bullying. Never be a victim.
- Trying to be better than other people and outdo them is exhausting and ends up taxing your health.
- Cultivate self-awareness for your tendency to take out frustrations and transfer blame.
- Don’t let anyone grab you by the breath.
- Acknowledge that your actions and opinions are fallible.
- Feel comfortable apologizing and offering clarification for your behaviors.
- Avoid implicitly condoning acts of incivility that you witness.
- Lower your constant guard against perceived diminishment and loss of ego.
- Reframe the offenses of others as shortcomings 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.
- Listen to and make an effort to understand others’ perspectives without interrupting.
- Instead of contradicting the contribution of another, think about how you can build on top of it.
- Be a psychopath with a heart of gold.
- Be absolutely unflappable. Pretend you are a god if need be. That calm exterior starts as a bluff but becomes a way of life.
- Assume the best or neutral motives in others. Maintain an objective stance when conflict arises.
- Instead of taking in the worst from everyone and reacting against it, selectively take the best and channel it into everything you do.
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