At its heart, I see Body-Informed Leadership as a somatic Allyship practice; that is, as a practice that enables those of us who are conditioned by Domination Dynamics to release them at the somatic level, and to cultivate instead the somatic skills and practices that enable collaborative interconnection – with ourselves, and with each other. In this article I will unpack this process, and will describe the somatic landscape that I believe underpins Dominance-based social systems, along with the more Partnership-oriented somatic landscape Body-Informed Leadership (BIL) promotes.
Domination vs. Partnership
The renowned writer and social systems scientist Riane Eisler divides human social systems into two categories, as being oriented towards either Domination or Partnership. Partnership-oriented societies, she argues, were favoured by our oldest ancestors. In such systems, power is seen as something which arises in relationship, and is reinforced by the mutual benefit it brings. In contrast, Domination-oriented societies understand power as something that is taken by one at the expense of another, and sustained by violence or the threat of violence. Domination-oriented societies first appeared in Europe between 3,000-4,000 BCE, and gradually moved Westward, ultimately colonising Western Europe (the Romans), and then much of the world.
Domination Dynamics and the Body
The evolution of Domination dynamics among human communities begs the question: where did they come from? Eisler points to collective trauma as being their likely originator. She describes years of drought and famine which plagued Eastern Europe around the same time the first Domination-oriented cultures appeared in that area. She points to the cultural changes that arose from this trauma (which included learning to see animals, and then women, and then other peoples as property to be controlled for personal gain) to explain the massive shift towards Dominance which ensued. Contemporary proponents of Cultural Somatics are picking up this same thread, and taking an even deeper look at the cultural dynamics – and specifically, their somatic substrates – which underlie unequal, or Domination-oriented societies to this day.
Many such writers describe the dysregulation of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which results from traumatic experience, along with the phenomenon of intergenerational trauma (dysregulation of the ANS which is passed unknowingly from parents to their offspring), as being a core mechanism by which unequal cultures are reinforced at the somatic (body-based) level. In this article, I will touch on this phenomenon and link it to the dynamics of Stephen Karpman’s “Drama Triangle,” which I believe extend and entrench the somatic states of ANS dysregulation into an inter-linking set of separation-oriented psychological categories, which are the anchoring social formula for the current Dominance system in the West.
States of ANS Activation
When we humans experience an event we perceive as being life threatening, our bodies automatically activate in-built defense strategies run by our Autonomic Nervous Systems. They are designed to save our lives: the intense adrenaline rush of “fight-or-flight” activation makes us capable of otherwise impossible survival feats (I’ve heard of parents who are able to lift cars off of trapped children); the sleepy lethargy of “faint” numbs us to pain. These defense strategies become activated completely outside of our conscious awareness or control. This is the key to their effectiveness: they are designed to take over in situations when thinking would simply take too long.
These defensive strategies – and the brain/body states they invoke – are usually temporary. They are meant to complete when a threat has ended, returning our bodies to a healthy resting state. In some cases, however, our bodies do not get the message that the threat has passed, and the activated states persist despite our best efforts to return to “normal.” This is the case in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With PTSD, a person’s brain and body is chronically oriented towards danger (despite the fact that the threat has passed), and is continuously over- (as in the case of the “fight-or-flight” response) or under- (as in the case of the “faint” response) stimulated as a result. As I mentioned previously, this type of ANS dysregulation can be unknowingly passed from parent to child, and on through the generations.
This dysregulation is intensely uncomfortable for our bodies. Digesting food, regenerating tissues, creating new memories, and practicing self-awareness are just a few of the important functions which are inhibited in such states. Connection with our fellow humans – which under normal circumstances is enjoyable and calming to the ANS – is also inhibited, as we are more likely to perceive other people’s behaviour as indicating threat. The pain of living under such conditions can be very great indeed.
As a result, many people who experience PTSD and/or its intergenerational effects turn to substance use and other addictive behaviours in an attempt to ease their suffering. In one sense, this is an understandable, even intelligent strategy, as the feel-good chemical compounds contained in some drugs and released by addictive activities (which are naturally produced by our bodies but inhibited by ANS dysregulation) can bring a temporary sense of relief. This relief is short-lived, however – and all too often comes with a host of devastating side-effects – and does nothing to resolve the underlying ANS dysregulation.
The ANS and the Drama Triangle
When a critical mass of the population is dysregulated at the level of the ANS, this brain-body phenomenon becomes more than a personal experience: it starts to shape the wider culture. At the inception of the first Domination societies, I believe that such a critical mass was reached. What was initially a disorder transmitted or inflicted at the individual level became a consciousness which transformed our sense of self and other. I believe we learned from our dysregulated nervous systems to collectively relate to life experience – and hence, to our fellow human beings and the world around us – in an imbalanced way, from the vantage point of either hyper- or hypo- aroused, or addicted, neurophysiology. Rather than something to partner with for the sake of personal and collective benefit, our life experience became at the sensory levela threat to overcome, either by dominating it, submitting to it, or avoiding the anticipated pain of it. And so the psychological and social roles described by Karpman’s Drama Triangle –the Persecutor, the Victim, and the Rescuer – were born.
In Karpman’s formulation, each of the three roles both invokes and reinforces the other two; hence, their inter-linking, “triangular” relationship. They can be described in the following way:
- The Victim
The Victim’s perspective is “poor me.” They feel oppressed, powerless, hopeless, and are unable to take initiative or decisive action. The Victim is identified with being harmed, and/or “being done to.”
- The Persecutor
The Persecutor’s belief is “it’s all your fault.” They are blaming, rigid, authoritarian, oppressive, and angry. The Persecutor is identified with causing harm, and/or “doing to.”
- The Rescuer
The Rescuer says “let me help you.” Their main motivation in helping others is to avoid their own inner issues, pain, or struggle. Their rescuing has further negative effects, as it keeps the Victim dependant, and makes their own sense of power contingent upon other peoples’ actions.
These roles are inherently imbalanced in relation to power, and also impose an unequal power distribution upon each other, so that, like reversed magnets, they never quite connect. In this way, they entrench the stance of separation, somatic fragility and reactivity – originated by our threat-obsessed Nervous Systems – in our psychology and in our societies. And in so doing, they further entrap us into Dominance, for without connection, power cannot be shared and sustained through mutual benefit, and must instead be kept by force.
Learning to Feel, Learning to Heal
These roles and the disconnection they create are so familiar, so woven into dominant Western society that they are almost ubiquitous. Similarly, the ANS dysregulation they intersect with continues to be transmitted through generations, pervading our bodies and our communities. Even those of us who do not experience PTSD or its intergenerational effects directly are impacted by daily phenomena – such as toxic workplace culture, financial stress, and oppressive and unequal social systems – which evoke defensive ANS responses (fight/flight, freeze, or faint) and entrain our brains and bodies into defensive modes for much of our waking lives, mostly beneath our conscious awareness.
This is the prison that many of us carry around internally, entrapping ourselves and others into narrow and unequal categories of experience. The only way out, I believe, is to transform our relationship to our bodies by cultivating what I call “Somatic Safety.” Somatic Safety has two main aspects: 1) learning the tools and practices to generate safety in our individual and collective Nervous Systems, and 2) releasing our sensory experience of life from Drama Triangle dynamics.
Somatic Safety and the ANS
When cultivating Somatic Safety, the first order of business is to learn the characteristic mind-body symptoms of the different ANS states, so that we can start to sense and feel when they become activated. We must then learn to shift between them, returning again and again to a state of “Social Engagement,” which is our Nervous System’s optimal zone for connection and collaboration. Doing so requires an understanding of what sensory and body-based experiences send “safety” signals to the ANS, and allow its defensive programs to switch off.
Somatic Safety and the Drama Triangle
Once the ANS has relaxed, our bodies become able to relate to arising sensory experience with curiosity, rather than reactivity (and the consequent Drama Triangle dynamics). We learn to welcome – or at least, tolerate– arising sensation in our bodies, in all its many textures, intensities, and unknowns. This allows it to touch us, move us, inform and change us. This aspect of Somatic Safety requires awareness of the mind, which, out of habit and conditioning, will do its best to impose positive, negative, or avoidant (Drama Triangle) evaluations onto sensory experience – which can entrap us back into somatic Dominance from the top-down.
Somatic Safety and Partnership
Somatic Safety is not about protecting ourselves from uncomfortable experience; rather, it is about understanding the brain-body conditions in which we can truly feel– rather than defend against – both the pain and the pleasure of our life experience. It is the key which unlocks the prison of somatic reactivity and Domination Dynamics and allows us to step collectively into a somatic landscape in which we can respond more creatively to, and to be moved, informed, and touched by our sensate experience of life in all of its textures. Only when Somatic Safety is understood and in place in our bodies and our group cultures will we have the necessary somatic foundation to Partner once again with each other, and with the world around us. It is the core skill taught in Body-Informed Leadership Foundations programs.