True power is that which we hold over our own lives. It means making sure that at least most of our choices, the important ones, the ones that define us, are the result of our will and are not imposed on us by others or circumstances. Of course, everything in life requires common sense and balance, which is why we give in so often, but receiving a balanced counterpart, in a game of power in which nobody always wins or loses most of the time. It is a game that we learn to play from the cradle, in iron arms with our own parents, in challenges of teenagers who do not yet measure how far they can go, in negotiations of adults who do not always go as we expect, but who they allow us to learn the art of attack, but also of defense. But there are those who do not learn, for lack of good teachers, grow up with too fragile self-esteem, or simply get caught in the curve, and when he finds out, he handed over power over himself, and everything escapes him, even dignity. “She humiliated him in such a way that we all blushed with shame.” This is how the neuroscientist and writer Ian Robertson begins to tell the story of a woman who, at a party, humiliates her husband in front of everyone, calling him useless, drunk and what came to mind, in a tone of contempt that cut even more than words said. While the guests, embarrassed, did not know what to say, the victim smiled, drinking a few more sips from the glass of whiskey that had been with him since he entered the room. How does that man stay in that relationship, Robertson wonders. The neuroscientist concludes that when someone hands over power over himself, he begins to be seen by him as an object and to be treated accordingly. “After all, objects do not have a will of their own, they do not make decisions. And, above all, they do not arouse empathy – what empathy do we have for an object?”, He says. Hence, contempt is a step, and Robertson explains the maneuvers our brain is capable of to justify the behaviors we have. If you asked that woman, who was, he says, smart and friendly, how she manages to be so cruel to her husband, she would probably answer something like, “He was asking for them.” And the truth is that even the viewer, after a moment of indignation, begins to think the same: what clown is that to remain there? Being a man the victim, even worse, because the woman’s prejudice continues to tolerate submission. Robertson comes to the aid of the poor man: the process of devaluation itself is real and translates into chemical changes and even brain function that at some point prevent the reaction. The victim progressively hands over the points, gets depressed, becomes more passive, loses the initiative, gets depressed and is afraid. And the more useless you feel, the more grateful you are that someone will give you attention, even if it is to mistreat you.
Labor relations can be undermined territory. But don’t imagine that these undermined relationships exist only in love relationships because they can happen in all power relationships, such as those between parents and children or bosses and employees. Robin Stern, psychoanalyst and author of a book about how easy it is to be manipulated, tells the story of Melanie, who dares to ask an authoritarian boss why he has given her only the most boring tasks to do. The boss looks her up and down and replies that she is too stressed and sensitive. Melanie, instead of answering that even if it were, it didn’t matter, adopts a defensive attitude.
It is unbearable for him to think that he is a little girl, seized by nerves. The discussion starts to focus on this topic: the boss delighted to have found a weakness, and she determined to prove to him that he is not fragile, accepting all the work without refiling. Of course, the story ends with depression, explains Robin Stern. But Melanie could be any of us and, be prepared, the boss too. Studies and studies show that, contrary to what we imagine, circumstances count for a lot, and can transform the most affable soldier into the most cruel of torturers. Power corrupts and too much power corrupts too much. That is why the responsibility to stop him is so great.
* Text originally published in November 2014 [edição 314]