I recently read David Rock’s latest book, Your Brain at Work. While a perfect example of one of the dominant conceptual metaphors I found in my own research, BRAINS R US, Rock’s work shines a light on an often under appreciated motivator for human behavior. Status.
We are intrinsically social beings, depending on each other for almost every aspect of our lives. Consequently, we’re also sensitive to the status of those around us. So, what is status?
Status literally comes from the Latin stem for the word to stand, plus a suffix indicating action. It is the action of standing, of taking your place in a group. We even use the phrase, “where do you stand on that issue?” or “where do you stand with that person?” to describe this experience of our position relative to another. Status isn’t a universal measure. Your status at any given time depends on who else is there, what the context is, and so is relative and fluid. Because those who are higher up in the “pecking order” in our social systems often get more of life’s goodies, we are acutely sensitive to status. Fear of losing status, even by losing a friendly argument with a colleague or loved one, can active stress responses in our soma. Cortisols and other stress hormones are released when we suffer from low status. A study done on British Civil Servants, the “Whitehall” studies, demonstrated clearly that those relegated to low status positions without much hope of moving up, were up to four times as likely to die than those who reached the top echelon of this social status system. This study has been confirmed with our closest primate kin, as well as replicated in other studies to different degrees. (For a nice discussion of these studies and the implications, see, Szalavitz & Perry, Born for Love.)
When we see someone who has less, reward circuits are activated in our brains and we feel better. This may also explain the ease with which we donate to the “less fortunate” – it’s easier to help others because we feel secure that our status is higher. High status, or even the hope of achieving an incremental increase in our “stature” releases dopamine and other neurochemicals that give us a biochemical “lift” in mood.
Even more painful than a loss of status is the threat of exclusion. Because of our tribal roots, exclusion feels like death; like we will be cast out of the tribe and left on our own to survive in a threatening world. Social pain is experienced by the brain as physical pain. It’s no wonder that our soma takes threats to status and inclusion very seriously. On the other hand, when we know “I’m in my right place,” we feel secure, and this relaxes us and allows us to be open and cooperative with others in our social sphere.
So, status and inclusion are seen as primary needs by your body-brain-being, your soma. Unfortunately, there are many ways that we can find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of standing in the wrong place. For example, a man developed sinus cancer and when asked where he experienced the energy of the illness, he said it felt like it was right behind him, almost breathing down his neck. Then he suddenly remembered that he had had an older brother who was stillborn. This child’s “place” was never acknowledged by the family. The loss was so painful that the family simply pretended it hadn’t happened. The man always felt uncomfortable in his family, like he was out of place. Acknowledging that his brother was the first child brought a great deal of relaxation to the man and he was able to deal with his disease on physical terms without the overlay of anxiety that had made a difficult situation so much worse.
We can be out of place in an organization. A woman who was a typical “father’s daughter,” who was in the wrong place in her family of origin and taking the place of her mother for her father, found herself as the “confidant” of her manager’s manager. Although she enjoyed the sense of being special, this status came at a price. She knew she was in the wrong place. Ultimately withdrawing from this role and working more closely with her actual boss strengthened her and enabled her to focus on her own contribution to the company instead of becoming tangled in politics that she had little actual influence on.
Constellation work is a quick and effective method for helping you find your place in your family system or organization. Tapping into your somatic sense of “where you stand” in relation to the others in your group enables you to see where the best place will be that brings you strength, ease, grace, and the relaxation and openness that comes from being in the right place.