Excerpts from “Pack Leader Psychology”

What Holds Most People Back Isn’t Lack of Ability, But Lack of Courage

Training was difficult because Reilly had eight months of pent-up puppy energy—which, if you know German Shorthair Pointers, is a heckofa lot of energy. In the first few weeks, if I didn’t have two hands firmly on her collar she broke away and tore off to go hunting in the woods behind my house. She snuck off and pilfered the neighbor’s trashcans routinely, running proudly back home with her finds of pizza crusts and pork chop bones. She killed any critter she could grab a hold of. I was at my wits’ end during those early days. I needed more discipline with her.

The symbolism is quite ironic now that, at the same time, I also needed to exert more discipline over my husband, Ray. I had no skills or knowledge to manage a wild puppy or a jealous, controlling husband. I didn’t realize both were dominating me in unhealthy ways and, with my submissive behavior, I was ignorantly allowing them to manipulate me. I felt angry and powerless, not realizing I held the keys to asserting myself with both dog and husband with just some simple behavior and attitude changes.

So I set about training Reilly, not realizing that what I would learn would eventually help me train myself and allow me to take control of my life.

© 2012 Harper West

The More Parts of Ourselves We Reject, the More Important It Is to Feel Accepted

Then one day while running with Reilly, I experienced a flash of insight. I realized that I was just like a dog rolling over and showing her belly to anyone who walked up. I was exhibiting my weaknesses without question to everyone, even unstable, controlling men like Ray who clearly did not have my best interests at heart. I was too trusting and naïve. The word “accommodating” suddenly seemed far too insubstantial for how I was behaving. I was submissive. Much too submissive. I actually cowered like the lowest omega dog in the pack that is happy to receive some scraps from the carcass, pleased that that the pack doesn’t beat it up or chase it away.

The terms used in the animal world became much more meaningful to me. I had observed that while dominant and subordinate roles are natural states in dog packs, some domesticated dogs don’t behave in well-adjusted ways. When a dog doesn’t have a balanced pack leader and feels fearful, it will adopt one of three main behavior modes: overly dominant, overly submissive or overly avoidant.

I immediately made the connection that people, almost universally, behaved in similarly unhealthy and unbalanced ways. Once I recognized this distinction, I could look around at the difficult people in my life and see that they often fell very clearly into one of these three categories. I named people with these behavior patterns quite simply: “Dominators,” “Submissives,” and “Avoiders.”

© 2012 Harper West

When You Live Only for Your Own Approval, the Risk of Rejection Disappears

Because I no longer have irrational fears of being criticized, controlled, or dominated, I am living one of Reilly’s lessons: Be brave. I am bravely allowing emotional intimacy into my life. I am allowing friends and lovers to be close but not overly demanding. I am bravely being honest with people when I feel I have been disrespected. I am expressing my emotions, which makes people sense that I am an emotionally warm person and they can be free to open up emotionally as well.

I also smile at the irony that, previously, I didn’t listen to my intuition and didn’t accurately sense when I should be fearful. Yet I still lived in fear – fear of all the wrong things. I was afraid of not being liked, yet this fear was exactly the weakness others preyed on and the real reason I should have been afraid. I was busy being afraid of rejection, yet this should have been the least of my worries. I had already rejected myself, the most fundamental source of shame and criticism there is.

I now realize that by existing for everyone else’s approval, one constantly risks rejection. When one lives only for one’s own approval, the risk of rejection disappears.

A pack leader listens to her intuition to sense fear, but knows that acting bravely starts with thinking bravely about herself. Inner, emotional fears are the most debilitating fears of all. When in doubt, be brave. I have learned a very important lesson: When you have nothing left to prove, your fear of disapproval goes away.

© 2012 Harper West

Beware of the Need for Belonging “Gone Bad”

Conformity, agreement, and compliance are innate in humans, because hunting, fighting off predators, and caring for young are much easier as a community. Reciprocity also feeds and drives our need to fit in. Our reputation is important if we want to be part of the tribe. Most of us don’t want to be seen as cheaters, and therefore ostracized, so we cooperate and are generous with others to boost our reputation. We conform, agree, and don’t make waves. We not only share tonight’s antelope, but this cooperation ensures that we can hang out with the group around the fire tonight and be safe. We social creatures have an inborn urge to cooperate, if only so we don’t get kicked out of the tribe.

This urge for social integration is so powerful it drives much of individual human behavior even today, when we don’t need to band together to fight off a lion or the neighboring tribe. It is a natural desire for all people to avoid feeling helpless and cast out.

The “longing for belonging” can, however, lead to less-than-admirable behaviors.

Because this urge is so elemental to us, the threat of social disconnection can trigger an automatic fear response. Our primal brain senses our survival is at stake and responds. Some researchers even use the phrase “social death” to describe the phenomenon – an indication of the power of exclusion.

Feelings of isolation are toxic emotionally and even physically. Neuroscientists now know that the same part of the brain that evaluates physical pain, the anterior cingulate cortex, is also used to judge the emotional pain of social rejection.

Conversely, the feeling of inclusion is physically healthy, bringing lower heart rates, improved sleep, and reduced stress hormones, according to numerous medical studies. Other research shows that married people have lower rates of illness and live longer. Feeling alone and excluded triggers feelings of fear, anger, and anxiety that result in physical symptoms, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

However, unbalanced people take the fear of being cast out to an extreme. It shows up in the nearly insatiable need for acceptance and the approval of others. While this need has its roots in a primal drive for survival, it has become a cause of most of our modern psychological and behavioral problems. People labeled by psychologists with many different diagnoses, including paranoid and depressed, are often hyper-alert to being emotionally victimized or rejected by others.

In the past, I was eager to get along with others, but I took my submissiveness too far, subsuming my needs in the service of getting others to like me and accept me. In taking the primal need for cooperation to an unhealthy level, I cooperated with everyone – even those who wanted to harm me.

© 2012 Harper West