What questions do you ask when you meet someone for the first time?
Personally, I purposefully avoid asking them about their work. More often than not this information comes out spontaneously and naturally. In the meantime, I savor the ability to listen unknowingly, as I enter into a space of neutrality and curiosity.
Most of the time when we ask someone about their work, we indirectly question their social status. Unbeknownst to us our brains are equipped with a kind of application that continuously assesses social rank. This App has an adaptive function. In Social Rank Theory, evolutionary psychologists propose that this kind of App has developed to allow individuals to position themselves within a group. Being at the top of the social ladder has multiple benefits in terms of access to wealth, care, and education, which in turn prolongs lifespan and promotes the transmission of genes.
But when we enter into relationship with others, this “social rank” App works like a kind of see-saw. Do you remember see-saws when you were a kid? It was a lot more fun to fly up high than to fall down heavily. When we are placed (or place ourselves) in a high-ranking social position we inevitably witness others in a lower position. Initially, we may feel proud of ourselves, but then we may also feel embarrassed or guilty and ask ourselves: “Who do I think I am”? In a sense, being in a lower-ranking social position can then seem to be a more comfortable place to be. However, this position is also complicated. We might feel protected from rivalries or jealousy, but also experience feelings of worthlessness that can surprise us as if someone was whispering in our ear: “You’re not enough! ” (Brené Brown).
Paul Gilbert’s research shows that this social rank mentality is linked to the mental suffering of depression and anxiety. Berkeley researchers have also linked inflated or deflated feelings of self-worth to such afflictions as bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. This relational balancing act (external but also internalized) is often difficult to stabilize and complicates our sense of connection to others.
What if we decided to get off this see-saw? How would we go about doing just that?
A good place to start could be to simply remember that we are all human beings and explore what that means. We all have experienced pain, doubt and hope. We share our deepest ancestral and universal fears. We are afraid of dying, of being crazy and of being rejected. We hope, consciously or not, to be seen and loved. We fear abandonment but seek warmth and shelter to rest. Most simply we all breathe.
Take a moment to feel your breath and realize that beyond all the differences, we all breathe.
Getting off the see-saw and breathing together is allowing the emergence of a sense of shared humanity. It is one of the central elements of compassion (the motivation to relieve suffering). One can only consider the suffering of another if the value of that person can be seen. For example, not so long ago we used to consider that children were less important than adults. At that time, we tended to put their needs and their distress in the background. To consider that children and infants are equal in value has led to a better understanding of their needs and difficulties and resulted in concrete improvements in their living conditions. We are increasingly aware of their distress, especially when they are harassed and bullied.
I regret today that as a child I was not aware that this social rank App led me to turn my gaze towards “popular” children while I considered others less attractive. I have certainly missed out on wonderful relationships and friendships. Today I teach children who are bullied that such abuse is the result of a particular group identity mechanism. Just like a person, a group needs to create and develop an identity. Unfortunately, this identity is often built in opposition to others who are excluded. Anyone excluded from a group is often left out because of a certain characteristic. This could be something as insignificant as them having a yellow scarf which could lead the group to create an identity as a red scarf wearers. In this way they position themselves at the top in the see-saw, promoting the belief that “red scarf wearers are better.”
The reflex of a devalued individual in such a situation is often to want to prove the value of his or her scarf, however hopeless this strategy might be. Instead, I encourage such children to work at simply unplugging their App; to mute it or stop looking at its notifications. After doing so they hopefully will be able to approach other children who have also been excluded by the group.
And it works! The last young girl who applied this strategy came back to me with two new friends. She said to me: “you know, Isabelle, finally, they’re not bad! My new friends are great!” She had previously ignored and discredited them because, like her, they were left out. By unplugging her App, she was able to approach them and realize how great they really were. This technique, if promoted, could certainly help alleviate a lot of suffering.
And it is not only children who can benefit from it! What about you? Who would you go to if you unplugged your App?
Looking inwards, we can try to be sensitive to our own value driven self-worth. Through self-compassion, we can allow our own suffering and joy to express itself fully. We can reconnect with a form of pride that is linked to what we have accomplished in terms of what we value and learn how to treasure ourselves the way we are instead of fighting to feel superior. We then can develop a feeling of self-worth based on a non-judgmental vision of ourselves; a vision filled with curiosity that is open to growth and promotes a sense of learning and creativity. Essentially this is a vision of ourselves as human beings living fully as we connect to a sense of common experience breathing at our own pace and in harmony with others.
Isabelle Leboeuf is a psychologist and psychotherapist in France. In her practice she integrates hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and compassion-focused therapy.
Leanne Rondeau is a psychologist who works in a college counselling service and in private practice. She is affiliated with La Clinique de Psychologie Celia Lillo in the Plateau area of Montreal. She offers workshops in English and in French in Compassionate Mind Training.