© Shannon Lynne Sullivan 2017-2019. All rights reserved.

  • Shannon Lynne Sullivan

What is the Origin of Compulsive Dominance?

If compulsive dominance is, as I have defined it previously, the action of taking an unfair advantage, then where does the action come from? We are undeniably social creatures--none of us would make it in this world alone. So how could we, as individuals and as a culture, become so mired in a relationship mechanism that inherently disadvantages our fellows?

My opinion is that dominance behaviors are tenacious because they are rooted in survival. When I watch young animals at play, humans included, I see them building life skills. They are testing and expanding boundaries and capabilities of bodies, minds, and relationships. They are rehearsing and refining the behaviors they will need to hunt, defend and cooperate for success, survival and independence.

Sometimes that practice looks like coordinating to orchestrate a takedown dog-pile on somebody big. Sometimes it looks like pinning your playmate’s shoulders to the dirt. In other words, the point of using dominance in play is to facilitate winning.

Dominance also comes in service and defense of the survival of the social whole. Looking to wild wolves, for example--in times of scarcity pack leaders can be seen using displays of dominance to block older offspring’s access to food so young, vulnerable pups can receive full nourishment. I call this protective dominance (a.k.a. caring, though caring can look other ways as well).

In my Feldenkrais work, I see versions of protective dominance on the physical level. The ‘time of scarcity’ could be an injury, or a missed developmental milestone, or even just a habitually restrictive way of using oneself (like spending hours at the computer writing blog posts). In these situations the natural interplay of bones, muscles and nerves is restricted, so less optimal movements or positions take up the slack. Maybe a stronger, more active muscle takes over for one that is injured and whose use causes pain. These sorts of compensations are important and necessary, but they rarely provide the best long-term strategy.

And then there is the third origin of dominance, which is actually more of a propagation, but to propagate something is to start it again and again and again. Your nervous system is in perpetual progression towards efficiency--combining multiple tasks into chunks and clearing out pathways that aren’t getting used--a.k.a. forming habits. And thank goodness, otherwise you’d never be able to do important things like walk, or put food in your mouth, or speak a full sentence. There is a downside, however, in that successful strategies from the past that have become embedded as habits can overstay their welcome when external circumstances change.

Just as any set of behaviors and actions can become habitual, so too can the behaviors and actions of dominance. They can become the default state that requires the least amount of energy to enact while providing some degree of immediate payoff. Thus their past success becomes the originating factor for their future. In this case, it could be said that the origin of today’s dominance is inertia.

So wrapping all this up--I’m saying that dominance, as a relationship strategy, is not inherently harmful. It can actually be of service to natural, necessary learning and function--as long as it can be curbed.

So then the question becomes--What keeps dominance in check? Or, taking each of these emergent types of dominance on their own--What keeps winning in-check? What keeps caring in check? And what are the beneficial disruptors of inertia?

Source images for photo collage from Unsplash, credit to: Jan SenderekAlexander MilsNick KarvounisAndrea Natalisamsommer, Lemuel Butler, and James Padolsey.

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