For more than 50 years, I’ve been trying to understand why dealing with powerful people was initially so nerve-wracking and scary. When I told one of my daughters about these fears, she was shocked. “But dad,” she responded, “you’re a very powerful and intelligent guy yourself.” That’s not where I started out. Fact of the matter, in a piece of feedback at my 50th high school anniversary, eight of my classmates said they didn’t really recognize me. When I asked why, they responded in unison that the guy they knew as “Dan” was “shy, quiet and withdrawn.” Not the Dan sitting in front of them in 2002.
What changed it all was that I understood that if I was to be successful in my vocation, I’d have to change my behaviors—drastically. I was very fortunate. With tons of education, mentoring and feedback, I was able to make the changes. Though obvious now, for a long time I failed to understand my shyness and withdrawal. I thought it was just a natural characteristic.
Where fear comes from
I grew up with a highly narcissistic mother. Going through the psychiatric classification of mental disorders, the DSM-5, I noted that she knocked seven of the nine defining narcissistic categories out of the ballpark. As my brother said over her grave, she was a “mean lady.” I learned early on that I’d have to work hard to please her, take care of her, defer to her opinions and agree with how she understood the world. Of course, I also learned that if I disagreed or didn’t do what she expected, she was liable to abuse me emotionally and withdraw any and all rewards.
So, going away to college—far, far away, offered freedom at last...
What I never understood until recently is that in those early years when working with powerful people, I was actually dealing with my mother. My fear of them was my fear of mother. I had a bit of Freudian psychology in my background, but it lacked the kind of clarity that I really needed. I had no inkling of the power of the unconscious.
The power of the unconscious
Until just recently it has been assumed that judgments and feelings can be created and shaped by stuff outside our awareness. But that our behaviors are always determined by our conscious, deliberately made decisions. For example, most of the doctrines of economics are built on the same idea—that we are rational, thoughtful creatures. And that we carefully weigh our personal options and choose the best one. Not so!
Tons of research over the past 30 years have found that the entire idea is bunk. And that much of our decision making and complex behaviors are primed—triggered—by our unconscious memory base of experience and knowledge. In effect, over the long term my mother’s behaviors created an internal stereotype. Over seventeen years this stereotype became very, very strong, residing in my unconscious. I now know that the stereotype was a strong, stern looking, hostile, distancing person, in a power role, making me fearful as a child—and overly cautious, wary and tense as an adult. My mother’s narcissism lived deeply, very deeply within my unconscious. That stereotype impacted my attitudes, behavior, language and even my nonverbals. Ferguson and Bargh,* leaders in the study of the unconscious, reveal how some social perceptions automatically influence behavior. Extensive downloadable research explaining my experience is available in google research under the key word “automaticity.”
In contrast, if the power person was warm, welcoming and open, I had no difficulty interacting with him (it was a “him,” not a “her”).
I worked for years learning how to deal successfully with this demanding “mother-stereotype.” I had an unusual amount of mentoring from several highly capable people. I just happened to be in careers and locations where unique mentoring was possible. Bit by bit, I disconfirmed my fear of people who reflected that negative stereotype. Over time I learned that the stereotype was false. I learned that the problem was in me, not in the other person. I also learned that some of the best church people and business folk were stern and distant and that some of the welcoming and warm people were mediocre church and business people.
Today, we know how to deal with these perceptions and stereotypes from the get-go. ** Peter Gollwitzer has created an approach for successfully navigating these situations. Over the short term, he recommends “implementation intentions.” These are concrete plans you make as to when, where and how you will carry out the intention. In the long term, the best way to get your goals accomplished is not by willpower, but by establishing good habits through regular routines of place and time.
Overall, the conclusions are scary: often we barely know what we’re doing, much less why we’re doing it. But we can learn to identify our triggers, revise the unconscious and even manage it for our own ends—contrary to what Freud believed.
*Melissa Ferguson and John Bargh, How social perception can automatically influence behavior. (Trends in cognitive sciences), Vol. 8, No.1, January 2004, pp.33-39.
**John Bargh, Before you know it: the unconscious reasons we do what we do. (New York: Touchstone), 2017, pp. 264-272.
John Bargh, How to use your unconscious mind to achieve your goals. https://bit.ly/2OJvaK4
[John Bargh is the world’s foremost authority on the unconscious mind. ACMElab.yale.edu. His book has an extensive and highly useful bibliography.]