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Key Idea #9: We Often Pursue Power Through Dominating or Submissive Behavior

When thinking irrationally or egocentrically, the human mind often seeks to achieve its goals by either dominating or submissive behavior. Put another way, when under the sway of egocentrism, we try to get our way either by dominating others or by gaining their support through outward submission to them. Bullying (dominating) and groveling (submitting) are often subtle in nature, but they are nonetheless common in human life.

Power is not bad in itself. We all need some power to rationally fulfill our needs. But in human life it is common for power to be sought as an end in itself, or used for unethical purposes. One of the most common ways for egocentric people and socio-centric groups to gain power is by dominating weaker persons or groups. Another way is by playing a subservient role toward a more powerful other to get what they want. Much of human history could be told in terms of the use of these two egocentric functions of individuals and groups. Much individual behavior can be understood by seeing the presence of these two patterns in the behavior of individuals.

Though everyone tends to use one of these behavior patterns more than the other, everyone uses both of them to some extent. Some children, for example, play a role of subservience toward their parents while abusively bullying other children. Of course, when a bigger and tougher bully comes along, the weaker bully often becomes subservient to the stronger one.

When we are egocentrically dominating or submitting, we do not readily recognize we are doing so. For example, people presumably attend rock concerts to enjoy the music. But members of the audience often act in a highly submissive (adoring, idolizing) way toward the musicians. Many people literally throw themselves at the feet of celebrities or take their own definition of significance from distantly attaching themselves to a celebrity, if only in their imagination. In like manner, sports fans often idolize and idealize their heroes, who appear bigger than life to them. If their team or their hero is successful, they vicariously feel successful and more powerful. "We really whipped them!" translates as, "I am important and successful just as my hero is."

Rational people may admire other people, but do not idolize or idealize them. Rational people may form alliances, but not ones in which they are dominated by others. They expect no one to submit to them blindly. They blindly submit to no one. Although none of us fully embodies this rational ideal, critical thinkers continually work toward it in all their relationships.

By the way, traditional male and female sex-role conditioning entails the man dominating the woman and the woman playing a submissive role toward her man. Women were to gain power by attaching themselves to powerful men. Men displayed power in achieving domination over women. These traditional roles are far from dead in present male/female relationships. For example, in many ways the media still portray men and women in traditional gender roles. Because of these and other societal influences, men tend to be more dominating than submissive. Conversely, women tend to be more submissive, especially in intimate relationships.

Strategic Idea

If we realize the prominent role that egocentric domination and submission play in human life, we can begin to observe our own behavior to determine when we are irrationally dominating or submitting to others. When we understand that the mind naturally uses numerous methods for hiding its egocentrism, we recognize that we must scrutinize our own mental functioning carefully to locate dominating and submissive patterns. With practice, we can begin to identify our own patterns of domination and submission. At the same time, we can observe others' behavior, looking for similar patterns. We can look closely at the behavior of our supervisors, our friends, our spouses, our children, our parents, noticing when they tend to irrationally dominate and/or submit to the will of others.

In short, the more we study patterns of domination and submission in human life, the more we are able to detect them in our own life and behavior. And only when we become adept at detecting them can we take steps toward changing them.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Submissive and Dominating Behavior in Ourselves

During the next week, closely observe your behavior patterns to determine whether you tend to behave in a dominating or a submissive manner when you are egocentrically pursuing your desires. Take notes on your behavior during the week. At the end of the week, complete the following statements:

  1. I observed myself behaving in a dominating way in the following situations…

  2. Some implications of this behavior are…

  3. In future similar situations, I will modify my behavior in the following ways…

  4. I observed myself behaving in a submissive way in the following situations…

  5. The implications of this behavior were…

  6. In future similar situations, I will modify my behavior in the following ways…

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