Thursday, August 21, 2014

Overcoming the Inferiority Instinct

As primates we have innate instincts that were designed to help us communicate nonverbally about our social ranking. They are hardwired into our brains, faces, breathing, and posture. These instincts force us to regulate our body in a way that is less-than-efficient in order to send the signal: “I am not operating on all cylinders.” It is a form of self-handicapping. These subordination displays are used by mammals to show submission to more dominant animals, and thereby keep from being attacked. We are all constantly but unconsciously sending out signals about our own inferiority. These would have kept us safe during hunting and gathering times, may have kept us safe on the playground as children, but probably only hurt us in adulthood. Unfortunately, these signals activate the body’s stress systems and can be taken to be the physical embodiment of our psychological pain, angst, and misery. If we can become aware of how we are signaling subordination and dominance, we can interrupt the displays that do not serve us. The table below lists three types of displays (inferiority, neutral and dominance) and highlights the recommended display in bold.

Inferiority Display
Neutral Display
Dominance Display

Eyes looking down
Eyes straight
Eyes looking up
Minimized eye contact
Appropriate Eye Contact
Excessive Eye Contact
Eyes squinting
Eyes neutral
Eyes wide open
Raised eyebrows
Neutral eyebrows
Furrowed eyebrows
Head down
Head horizontal
Nose in the air
Neck and back hunched
Neck and back neutral
Neck and back flexed
Shoulders raised
Shoulders neutral
Shoulders down
Voice high
Voice neutral to low
Voice deep to raspy
Face tense and wincing
Face relaxed
Face tense and grimacing
Chin jutting out
Chin neutral
Chin to chest
Gluteus limp, lumbar lordosis, genitals hidden
Hips and pelvis neutral
Gluteus flexed, lumbar kyphosis, genitals on display
Jaw and neck tense
Jaw and neck neutral
Jaw and neck tense
Breathing short, quick, shallow
Neutral breathing
Breathing long, slow and deep

Here is a list of recommendations that have helped me:

  1. Be very calm in social situations. Retain complete composure.
  2. Make calm a priority, even over appearing rude or unsophisticated.
  3. Be very calm when you model social interactions in your head.
  4. Expect that the calmest version of you has what it takes to resolve any scenario.
  5. You want to reprogram yourself so that you are calm socially all the time, automatically, even in your dreams.
  6. Always breathe at least 5 seconds in and 7 seconds out. Your breath should be a tiny but continuous sip of air that never pauses and always proceeds at the same rate.
  7. Monitor your breathing carefully during conversations, it will be too shallow at first.
  8. Take deep breaths when the other person talks.
  9. Take deep inhalations before you start your sentence, and don’t breathe in again until you are almost out of air.
  10. Don’t jump back into the conversation quickly with no regard for finishing your breath. Your breath comes first.
  11. Minimize squinting socially, especially when you smile.
  12. Minimize raising your eyebrows socially.
  13. Achieve more with a small, slow smile that grows gradually.
  14. Do not use nervous laughter.
  15. Do not make your voice high pitched as an indication of affection or compromise. If you do speak in an unnaturally high voice, just to be nice, too often, you will develop a permanent lump in your throat.
  16. Look above the horizon and above the eyeline as much as possible.
  17. After making eye contact look above the eyeline rather than below it.
  18. When you watch television, look all of the characters straight in the eye as much as possible. Lying down on the floor, watching television upside down will help you learn to look up without effort.
  19. Stand tall, sit tall.
  20. The best posture for the neck is to look upwards while brining your chin to your chest.
  21. Notice the way that you hold tension in your voice and in your face after you finish speaking.
  22. Never replay or imagine negative social scenarios, especially confrontational or violent ones.
  23. Do not respond with your face or words to provocation.
  24. Notice before you meet someone, or even make a call, or send a text, that your face and neck will tighten up and you will start breathing shallowly.
  25. Try being “dead calm,” first by yourself, then with others.
  26. Think of yourself as pure of heart, slow to anger, and not easily offended.
  27. Make your posture and countenance ruthless, uncompromising, and unapologetic but temper this by making your personality humble, thoughtful and affectionate.


  1. This is a heckuva list

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