We’ve seen them in films, on TV, we’ve read about them in books – nasty guys who get to the top and throw their weight about – and make everyone else’s life a misery. They’re the dominant types, the alpha types, the bullies that make a lot of noise and we love to hate.
But we hate to work for them, be around them, be in relationship to them, have them in our family – and we breathe a sigh of relief when we finally get shot of them.
Unless of course you’re one of them yourself or you get a buzz from challenging and engaging with this type. You thrive on their energy and determination – they inspire you to succeed.
It’s the Nasty People that Get Ahead?
Many people as a result believe that being nasty is necessary for success because they see the people who are prepared to throw their weight around: get promotion, get rewarded for the hard work of others, get away “with murder” and win all kinds of other advantages for themselves.
In fact it’s what I used to believe myself. I saw these kind of people achieving things that I couldn’t, and I gave up any hope that I could excel in this kind of way. But I didn’t want to be like them. I didn’t want to play their game – I just didn’t really have it in me.
I couldn’t in my wildest dreams see myself behaving anything like that – and I would have hated myself for doing so. And even if I hadn’t, I know that if I tried to behave anything like this, it would have back-fired on me, lost me friends and I would be worse off than before.
And I was fed up with them undermining me, walking all over me, taking advantage of me, manipulating me, dis-empowering me and generally dominating me. And I was also fed up with feeling angry that they could get away with this behaviour, or angry with myself for giving my power away to them, failing to be assertive once again and for losing my own self respect. It was yet another nail in the coffin of my crumbling self-esteem.
But is it really the nasty types that get ahead – in the long term? Does being nasty, bullying and overpowering people really help you win friends and influence people? Or does it in the end back fire on you?
In this article, I hope to show you that you don’t have to be nasty to get ahead. In fact you can get much further by not being nasty. But you do need to know how to play the game which does not need you to resort to anything underhand. But it does require you to make a shift within yourself.
Another Way to Build Confidence and Self Respect
Much later in my life I discovered there was another way of interacting with these people that was a lot more effective – and helped to build my self respect and confidence – and meant that these kind of people whilst unpleasant to deal with and be around, didn’t get to dis-empower me. It also meant that they wouldn’t even think of approaching me to do the menial tasks that no one else wants to do.
Here’s an example of when. There was a very difficult man at the place I used to work with. He was really a very unpleasant man and everyone loathed him. Other people that I worked with got into terrible battles with him and somehow he always got his way which meant they hated him even more. I had to deal with him on a regular basis and although I did find it hard, since I have never been very good conflict – but I found a way of standing my ground and quietly asserting what I wanted. I can’t say that I felt terribly good about it.
But this man did offer me all sorts of advantages and it was only much later that I discovered that he treated me with a lot more generosity and respect than my more assertive colleagues.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was drawing on behaviour that I’d learned in the Keith Johnstone improvisation classes that I’d done years ago and that I now teach to my clients. So I now see them achieving in areas that previously they found very difficult.
One young woman came back triumphant from a job interview. She said:
“I could see the guy interviewing me was doing a “high status” thing on me and I could feel myself shrinking and started to feel that the interview wasn’t going very well and that I was losing confidence. I didn’t like the way he was making me feel but because I know what he was up to, so I started raising my status – and the effect was amazing.
I saw him visibly shift in how he was relating to me. He started to take me a lot more seriously and as a result I felt more confidence – and I walked out of the interview feeling great because I hadn’t let him get the better of me.”
She had done exactly what I had done with the horrible man at work. I had raised my status – so that he now began to view me in a different light. He didn’t know why he was viewing me differently and why he now saw me as an equal and an ally – and someone he wanted on his side. Another participant used it on what was normally a difficult interchange with her boss and came back thrilled at how raising her status had achieved a dramatic shift in with how much better she felt about communicating with her boss.
Playing The Game
So what is this raising status business and how can you apply it in the situations in you life that you find so difficult.
Status is a game – a game that it being played out everywhere. You see it in the street, in the tube, at work, amongst your friends, in your relationships and particularly in your family.
It’s almost certainly at work when family member always manages to get their way – irrespective of their actual position in the family. It’s at work when someone in accounts has the directors dancing to their tune.
The roots of status are ancient. Status is played out in the animal kingdom and human’s have played this game out since time immemorial. One of the reasons that this game has such powerful impact is because it is also the game of survival – and this is where it gets confusing – because as a result many people find themselves believing that winning at this game is absolutely crucial.
Out in the wild, dominance rules and it is the less dominant that is driven out, rejected – and may possibly die. Deep down at an unconscious level most people believe that we have to win at this game even though our survival no longer depends on it – and even though they may also hold other more worthy beliefs and values.
One man wrote on my blog demonstrating how potent these dynamics are and how they influence us at the deepest level:
I’m a male and I found myself comparing myself to other males in terms of physical appearance. I always believed that people with strong physical posture (e.g height , body mass, etc) has an advantage in attracting attention and respect both in general settings or in relational ones (especially from members of the opposite gender).
No wonder this is an area of such deep anxiety for many people.
This is complicated by the fact that over the millennia humans have become socialised and these social pressures are far more important. Jane Goodall in her study of chimpanzee discovered that the dominant chimp was not the biggest and strongest – but the one who had won the allegiance of the other chimps in the group. This is the same for humans – we seek social acceptance and the more accepted we are by others, the more likely we are to thrive.
On top of this, it may be that in your family you won acceptance through dis-empowering yourself and so this becomes a very different way of surviving that is equally powerful. Indeed most people find it is very difficult to stop dis-empowering themselves when they move away from their family. It has become a habit – and you have to unlearn those habits which have become second nature.
Thus these two influences of dominance and socialisation are competing against each other – and causing significant confusion.
When people come to my improvisation classes they learn how to play both high status and low status. High status wins you authority and respect and low status wins you friends and supporters. In actual fact, both are crucial because there are some situations where playing low status can be very beneficial – and others where raising you status can shift some of the very powerful programming that can keep us stuck in unhelpful roles.
Most of us tend to play one more than another as a default mode. Some times it works for us to do this and sometimes it doesn’t. There are downsides to both. High status can get you trapped in ego battles and one up-manship and the stress of having to keep up appearances. Ultimately it’s a lonely position that maintains hierarchy and keeps you remote from other people. Low status can keep you stuck in the victim position and low self esteem.
Chris was the only girl in a family of three other brothers. She describes the dynamic of her family experience in this way:
When I was a child my mother was in a very positive high status looking after the family. She lost it and felt failure guilt and shame when criticized, blamed and rejected by my father. Then I replaced her to look after the family and I was in a positive high status trying to please and serve my father. Later, the same way as my mother I was criticized and rejected by my brothers.
Frustrated by her relationships with the very dominant men in her family, Chris had developed a strategy for coping. She escaped her country of origin, built a life of her own and became a free spirit.
But this did not help her when it came to dealing with her brothers. Years later she was still being undermined and over powered by her brothers and paying out the same victim role she had seen her mother play.
A Big Shift
Chris had been coming to my workshops for years and she had made all kinds of progress – but she had remained an adept and very appealing low status play and as a result still struggled in her relationships with other people. The shift that Chris made during the status exercise was really quite remarkable.
When it came to doing the high status exercise, because Chris was through her experiences in her family, a low status specialist, she did not choose the easy path. She could have chosen a higher social position in the exercise and raised her status over her partner through this simple fact – but high status is not just about social position (although it can be). Chris chose a much harder route in taking the lower social status – but she raised her status in much more subtle and powerful ways – ways that did not alienate her partner and produce an ego battle. She did it in a way that won his respect and he could feel he was losing ground against her.
In fact Chris knew exactly how to do this – even though she didn’t know how she did. She did what she had learned from her brothers and father – and she also added something that they couldn’t do. She raised her status in such way that she didn’t threaten her partner. Therefore her partner did not respond by getting combative – but instead found himself feeling impressed by her and marveling at her skill.
When she came back to the next session, Chris walked into the room with a confidence and authority that I had never seen in her before. She was a different woman. She was full of energy and aliveness and she was holding herself in a way that automatically won respect and yet also didn’t threaten others. This is what I call “Natural Authority”. She had absorbed what was useful about playing the high status game and integrated it into herself – so she both looked and felt great.
When you have natural authority, other will recognise you as their equal and they will acknowledge that you have won their respect. They won’t say this so much in words. They will do this in much more subtle ways – through body language, through the tone of their voice and by choosing a different way to relate to you. It would not occur to them to behave in all the underhand ways that I have described above. They will choose to deal that out to people who bring out the dominator in them. Not you.
Natural authority also means that you are being the “real you”. You’re not putting on airs and graces that make others feel uncomfortable or bring out the competitive or aggressive side of them.
As Chris raised her status through shifts in how she was holding herself and using her own natural strengths – her survival strategy of becoming a free spirit served her well.
Instead of using it to set herself apart as a non-player – because she didn’t want to play the dominance/submission game – she was making use of her natural skills which did even more to disarm her partner, so he didn’t even mind that she raising her status above his. She wasn’t dis-empowering him – because she was empowering herself. And this was the key.
One of the reasons that nasty people get ahead – and occasionally it is because they can do the unpopular jobs that will make them even more unpopular – is because they have natural authority. Their demeanour, their way of expressing themselves is authoritative and empowered – it makes other people listen to them and so they naturally have the ability to lead others. They have energy and they make waves.
But you can achieve this without being nasty. You achieve it though being your Real Self – your self empowered self – and then you will inspire others and others will be naturally drawn to you. Continue to do this over a period of time and you will attract notice and respect – and other will begin to shift how they view you. And you will get that promotion
When Chris walked into the class the next week with so much energy and aliveness – who wouldn’t want to listen to her, pay attention to her, engage with her and want to find out . She inspired us and this is the secret.
How Can You Raise Your Status?
In the status exercises, participants learn how to both raise and lower their status and to do this consciously. The fact that most of this behaviour is unconscious and automatic is what makes it so hard. Practicing doing this in a safe environment is important where others are going to support you – and where it won’t be the end of the world if you make a hash of it.
Being able to play the status game well relies on other skills too and this is why I don’t teach it at the beginning of the improvisation class. You need also to unlearn some of the habits that keep you stuck in your head and master other skills that enable you to respond in a more natural way.
As Chris said:
Your improv course gave me a chance to live from my solar plexus (instincts), rather than from my conditioned mind, through my body, my emotions and by being spontaneous. This was possible because of the safety and encouragement of the group. So I could practice being my Real Self in relation to other people, which I could not be before I joined the group. In the weeks in between each session, I did experience the flash back of feeling completely sick in relation to certain people. And the sick-feeling completely disappeared by the time I attended the next session.
She couldn’t have achieved this kind of shift without making other shifts from the earlier classes. So I offer this exercise with the proviso – that it is far from a simple thing to raise your status in relation to challenging people but this exercise will get you started.
Think of a situation where other people succeed in making you feel small or dis-empowered. You may consider these people nasty or people who are dominant, alpha types. Remember the situation in as much detail as possible. What they said and how they said it, their body language – and what happened as a result. You may want to write this out – so you have a clear picture of how these people behave and the impact it has on you. i.e When my boss puts me down, I notice she has a very strident tone of voice, and I immediately feel as if I’ve done something wrong, and I find myself feeling defensive.
As you reflect on this notice in more detail how you are feeling as you are on the receiving end of this treatment. Notice if this triggering any memories from the past when you were disempowered. i.e I feel myself shrinking inside and I feel like a small child who’d being told off. I feel furious that she’s making me feel like this and furious with myself because I’m letting her put me down
Feel into your solar plexus and feel the power that lives in you. Let that build.
Imagine you are standing opposite the person and observing all the things that enables them to put you down, and feeling all the things that usually cause you to feel disempowered. You may mirror that in your body so you become familiar with how it feels and so you can recognise it the next time you experience it. Now begin tuning into the powerful feelings in your solar plexus and begin shifting your body so it aligns with that. i.e You may find yourself subtly adjusting your spine, stregthening your neck, relaxing your shoulders, relaxing your facial muscles. Play around with this until you find a bodily emotional position that is equal with the other person. NB You’re not trying to put yourself above them or to diminish them or to say “I’m better than you”, you are just standing tall in who you are and you are feeling good about yourself and your actions.
In your imagination observe their diminishing behaviour alter in relation to yours so you are both empowered. You may want to imagine them acknowledging or recognising you for meeting them as an equal.
Practice raising your status when you are in confrontational situations with others. But start in a small way rather than on a really challenging situation. Small successes practiced regularly will build your confidence so you can eventually be successful with the situations that challenge you most.
I hope you find this exercise helpful, and it will enable to start breaking the habit of dis-empowering yourself in relation to more dominant people – so you can start being the real “you” and relate to others from a more empowered place.
© Claire Schrader 2013
If this article has spoken to you, or if you have any questions, or there’s something you’d like to share please do leave a comment below. Your comments may inspire others.
Want to learn how to build natural authority
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