Self-Reg by Dr. Stuart Shanker

Self-Reg by Dr. Stuart Shanker

Author:Dr. Stuart Shanker
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Penguin Canada
Published: 2016-05-26T16:07:49+00:00

“Social Animals” Need Social Interaction—and Sometimes Fear It

Of course, there are also those who exploit the feelings of discomfort that we experience in Still Face–like encounters. Sadly, the person who intentionally manipulates this need that we all have is left not with the feelings of distress described by the undergraduates playing the role of nonresponsive caregiver but with a sense of power and control. But why should they have such an extremely self-centered impulse, which runs so contrary to the basic needs of social engagement? The answer to this question is complex and will ultimately take us, in the following chapter, deep into the prosocial domain. But the starting point lies in neuroception: in a stress-response system that has become tilted toward “fight.”

The domineering individual has become habituated to seeing others as threats: The employee who has done well is going to ask for a raise; the businesswoman he is negotiating with is trying to take advantage of his weakness; the attractive woman at the bar is going to reject his advances. And just like an eight-month-old who becomes angry in the Still Face experiment, these individuals become aggressive. They strive to dominate as a way of coping with the anxiety that they habitually feel in social situations.

Conversely, the adult who is habitually submissive or who shies away from all social encounters isn’t that way simply because she was born passive or is “congenitally shy.” For whatever reason, strangers produce in her a surge of adrenaline that dictates a flight response that is easily pushed to freeze. Her need to withdraw isn’t just emotional but also physiological: a defense mechanism to promote parasympathetic functioning.

These patterns can be hard to break, simply because they have become so entrenched. The dictatorial little boy whom I watched in the kindergarten class hadn’t been born that way. I don’t think that he was just acting out something he had experienced at home (although this might well have been a factor). Rather, he was confused about the subtle emotional currents swirling about him, and the more uncertain he felt, the more domineering he became. The little girl who bolted to the edge of the playground wasn’t simply “socially anxious” but was seeking to reduce her stress in the only way she knew.

It’s a phenomenon that helps us understand the great paradox of social interaction. We are indeed social animals: We come into the world with a brain that not just is receptive to but actually needs another brain in order to feel safe. The baby sends signals conveying a need for help; the caregiver responds with signals conveying the presence of that help. If a caregiver is unable to provide those signals—perhaps because she finds the infant’s needs confusing—the result is likely to be hyperarousal across a number of domains: biological, emotion, cognitive, and social.

A young couple once shared with me their frantic upset because their nine-month-old baby son, Zack, had laughed when his mother had started to cry: “Does this mean,” the father asked,


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