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Balancing power and belonging for mental health

We all need some sense of belonging and some sense of control. These are basic needs, but we’re not all the same. Some prefer to connect, others to keep control.

Which strategies do you tend to use to meet your needs?

  • Extrovert: Keep close to people and get control by being liked / popular
  • Autocrat: Keep distance and take charge to keep control
  • Pleaser: Keep close to people by keeping them happy come-what-may
  • Rejecter: Keep your distance. Reluctantly give in to people to keep the peace.

Many of us have probably been in the situation where we want to speak up for our needs but are too anxious that we’ll lose someone’s favour. Equally, many of us will have experienced times when we felt we should be keeping people happy but didn’t want to give up our freedom. Some may know the experience of cutting themselves off from others, not because they don’t want support - they may deeply need it - but because it just seems easier relying on themselves than being let down (yet again).

We all have a basic need to feel loved and cared for, and a need to be our own person, having some real control over our choices. How do you have both? Can you be happy without them both? It’s not easy to have both, but unless we do, we risk our sense of well-being and mental health.

The basic problem

One striking problem underlies this struggle - how to manage the trade-offs between power and love (connection / belonging). Here’s the problem - to maintain connection to people, we often feel we have to give up some power, some independence, but to keep some independence we often have to sacrifice connection.

A (very brief) bit of science

Our brains are hard-wired to want power, control, and connection. They’ve been vital for our survival and evolution. Our (very) ancient ancestors, the reptiles, survived by fighting and intimidating each other; the strongest got the girl (or guy) and passed on their genes. Our more recent ancestors (mammals) became successful by becoming strong in groups - that required bonding and connection. Humans, like chimps, have merged both instincts: you often get more or less power by how central / important you are in the group.

We still have what neuroscientists call ‘the reptilian brain’. The ‘fight and flight’ instinct is still with us: we respond very quickly with anger, aggression, anxiety, and fear, and part of us is programmed to compete with and defeat others, or run and (maybe) live to fight another day. The reptilian brain is largely responsible for our habit of feeling puffed-up with success or defeated and deflated when we can see no way forward. We need to listen to this part of ourselves and find ways of managing it.

We need to listen to both our ‘reptilian’ instinct to compete and keep control and our ‘mammalian’ instinct to connect and be accepted in a group. The truth is, with the right balance, you can have enough of both. Most of us can find groups where we can fit in, find our place, and connect.

What this means for mental health

Depression and anxiety have many causes, some still unknown, but we do know that if both can be caused by a sense of isolation, being cut off and withdrawn from social groups, and from a tendency to give away our power to others too readily. These twin problems, struggles bonding successfully with others, and being too submissive, can spell problems for self-esteem, happiness and how ‘in touch’ with reality we are. At its extreme, severe social isolation can lead to a damaging withdrawal into our own minds and loss of touch with reality.

For other people, the risk is the opposite: in their anxiety to connect and belong, they gain influence, (maybe), but lose independence. They lose sight of where they start and others stop - they lose themselves in others. As with so many things, we need to find the right balance for us, but one that includes some real connection and some genuine sense of control over our choices.

Some ideas to try:

1. List some of the ways you give up on connection to keep control

2. List some of the ways you give up on control to keep connection

3. Draw up some alternatives. E.g. if you spend a lot of time alone, could you call someone? Could you reconnect with an old friend? Try out a group that suits your personality?

If you give too much control away to please people, find one thing (to start with!) where you feel you could put your foot down and do what you want.

Another way out - the therapy relationship

Our patterns of relating to the power of others and how comfortable and secure we are in forming relationships have deep roots. It’s a bit of a cliché, for sure, but our childhood experience of home, school and then as teens and young adults does powerfully influence our whole mindset and deep-seated feelings. Counselling that will allow you to go deeply into those experiences, as well as notice how you handle similar things today, has the power to reshape your life. Why? Because good counselling is not a just a conversation, but a relationship, a connection, a special kind of accepting relationship in which you can (over time and as you’re ready) learn to connect with someone in new ways. You can learn to trust, to be open, to speak your mind, to be honest, and not just please someone or hope they go away. When you’re ready, your deep-rooted feelings can come to the surface in that safe relationship, and that’s where the change begins. You can learn - by experience - that you can be accepted and empowered.

References: Evolutionary Psychiatry - A New Beginning

Dr Anthony Stevens and Dr. John Price (Routledge Publishers)

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