The Doormat Syndrome
Learning About the Correct Use of Power
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
How is it that some people get the worst of every interaction, consistently confuse his or her own best interests with the interests of others? Counselor and therapists in the co-dependency field can certainly recognize the pattern in their clients, (if not in themselves) –the one in which a seemingly well-intentioned person is walked on, dumped on, ripped off–Doormat stuff! Doormat usually have body symptoms of tight shoulders and stiff necks from letting other lean on them! The body literally act out the tension pattern of carrying the world on it’s shoulders.
Being a Doormat is never easy. But it is especially disillusioning to have a working knowledge of co-dependent and addictive relationships, to have read the books and attended the workshops, and still wake up with mud on you face. We human beings have to feel something and experience it on a deep, deep level before we are shook up enough to really get the message of change. It is said the longest journey in the world is the twelve-inch journey between your head and your heart!
Perhaps Doormat behavior really signifies a misplaced trust in power in all of its forms–power over the self and others, power of others to help us in some way. There is an ancient South American legend that tells of the time when the gods created the earth. They looked for a place to hide power because they realized it was a possibly dangerous force that might be found and used in a destructive fashion. The gods considered the top of the mountain and the bottom of the sea, but ruled these out because power was too dangerous to hide in one place. So the gods decided to divide the power up and place it in the hearts of men, women and children.
All human beings have a drive for power; it is the essence of survival. Power drives start in infancy and continue though out life. Derived from the Latin, potre–which means to be able–power is morally neutral. Power can be used for good or ill purposes. Power comes in two basic forms: Coercion, or verbal or physical threat, or Persuasion, which requires acceptance of the person going along with some authority. This acceptance is based on the previous social conditioning of the person being approached with a power demand or request.
Some types of control are adaptive in that they strengthen a person’s self worth. Having an internal sense of control results in individuals taking responsibility for the choices they make and what happens to them. According to the latest research, the more control a child is given over everyday life choices, the better. Both career and personal outlooks brighten in later life when the child learns to make decisions, learn from them and correct mistakes. But when childhood power drives are filtered through anxiety and fear, the result is social control and manipulation. This type of control robs people of self esteem.
The primary negative law of power as known by dysfunctional people and governments all over the world is Them that has it, tries to keep it. Remember the childhood game of King or Queen of the Hill? The object was to remain in charge through brute force. We were taught as youngsters that power was dualistic: “If I have the power, then you don’t,” or “If you have the power, then I won’t have any.” Power could not be shared. Putting the power in one person or in one camp creates a type of mind set that fosters anger, tension and competition.
In fact, it is hard to think of a greater waster of human potential for all parties concerned than the domination/submission model. This model has fostered destructive behavior, aggression and violence on the part of those in control. It has encouraged resentment, passive aggressive behavior and rebelliousness on the part of the submissive person who had to learn manipulation in order to survive. This old model has stifled the growth of both victim and victimizer as it precludes trust, affection and true intimacy.
Closed Family Systems Create Doormat Behavior
Doormats have generally learned to give their power away or use it in a passive aggressive fashion. It is something they have learned growing up in a “closed” family system. A closed system is one where energy is spent in trying to keep things from changing. In this kind of home environment, one or more members bent on maintaining the status quo, help keep the power structure off balance. Since communication often promotes change and change and threatens the status quo, closed family systems do things by unspoken agreement. Them that has the power keeps it. This arrangement allows dependence on alcohol, drugs, abuse or out of control sexual needs to flourish.
Closed systems prevent problem solving, personal growth and moving forward. The family motto becomes “Don’t rock the boat.” Individuals who grow up in closed systems do not get their early emotional and psychological needs met and often develop compulsive, dysfunctional behaviors as a result. Dependency becomes increasing worse in children who have harsh, domineering parents.
Unfortunately, when the child grows up, there are more than enough domineering, intimidating types to play “parent.” In The Fire From Within, Carlos Castaneda calls people who use aversive control Petty tyrants. Aversive control includes power trips such as yelling, glaring, sighing, blaming and pouting to keep family members under control. A petty tyrant is someone who bullies, torments or otherwise tries to oppress you.
There are some great examples in literature and in the movies of strong people standing up to petty tyrants. Jesus Christ before Pilate, Sir Thomas Moore before King Henry VIII, Joan of Arc before the king of France, and Mr. Roberts before the ship’s captain in the movie, Mr. Roberts. In each case, the hero stood firm, calm and collected in the face of persecution. Castaneda says it is lucky to stumble onto a petty tyrant because you can learn about control, self discipline and self respect in your dealings with him. There is a challenge in dealing with a seemingly impossible person in a position of power. He even recommends that you go out and look for one so that you can practice facing them with discipline and inner strength.
Virginia Satir described the “Benevolent Dictator” who practices a friendlier, but equally tyrannical form of control. Domineering parents are examples of this type of oppressor. Benevolent dictators want to the be the Dear Abby of the Universe and offer solutions to everyone’s problems but their own. They may even be correct in the assessment of how things are and how to correct them.
Benevolent dictators become so caught up in other people’s problems that they unconsciously use others to avoid the personal responsibility of looking at their own actions. They can play the role of the expert who gives advice as a coping mechanism to avoid looking at their own unresolved needs for power. They smile and act nice to you, but the bottom line is–“You had better do as I say.” They treat others as problems to be solved and people to be controlled. They send a message that you are not grownup enough to figure out your problem on your own and take the consequences. Their bottom line is “I KNOW WHAT IS BEST FOR YOU AND YOU HAD BETTER DO IT!”
The tactics of a benevolent dictator creates helplessness in people who agree to play their hidden power games. This fits neatly into the Doormat’s perceived need to live in perpetual atonement for past, present and future sins. Doormats turn their own personal power over to others. They communicate statements like, “Whatever you want is okay. It’s all right with me. You decide for me. I’ll go along with whatever you want.” They ask permission for things that other people just take for granted and go ahead and do. “Could I have a hamburger?” when ordering food from a waitress is an example of co-dependent talk. Say what you want straight out instead of asking permission when it is appropriate.
Giving in to others is consistent with closed family systems which teach manipulation and submissiveness rather than straight communication. Letting other walk over you is learned in households where adults have used becoming hurt as a technique of discipline and control: “If you don’t do what I say, I’ll be hurt and disappointed in you.” Children from such systems learn to keep quiet and be the good kid.” They learn the basic rules of dysfunctional families: “Don’t talk, don’t trust and don’t feel.” When they transgress these family rules and speak out, they feel guilty. They go through life ruled by the guilt that they have internalized.
Open Family Systems Create Equality and Independence
In an open system, energy is spent in promoting change, and there is a balance of power. People are treated with respect in open systems. There are checks in place to keep the power from going out of balance. Keeping everything fixed and stable is not as important as the growth and development of all individuals. The open system provides increased energy that transforms itself into something new. Individuals are treated with love, respect and concern. Family members are encouraged to be productive and grow.
The good news is that you can always learn to open up the relationship systems in your life. You can cash in Doormat status and exchange it for self-respect. But this requires letting go. If the attachment is to an addicted partner, letting go may mean allowing the other person to hit bottom and seek professional help. Negative energy from abusive relationships must be released in order to allow the power of the other person and to unfold.
The scriptures of all religious traditions tell us that we are to be of a loving and open heart. We are our brothers’ keepers, but we can learn to do that in ways that do not cripple them. A keeper in the old sense of the word meant a jailer, custodian or warden. We can truly become our brothers’ keeper by keeping their spirit intact. We can give other people the tools they need to help themselves. Of course, it also means releasing one’s own overzealous need to enable and fix others which is a form of control in itself. And being putting the Benevolent Tyrant to rest in ourselves.
Learning about your own unhealthy patterns of behavior is the key to changing them. Giving to much can be a habit, an impulse or a dysfunction rule that you have absorbed. Healthy giving comes from because it is the right thing to do in the situation, not because you have to give out of guilt or from old childhood programming.
When you learn to be primarily accountable to yourself, the stage is set for other people to have more choices. They may choose to accept responsibility and take care of themselves, or they may find someone else to take care of them. Relationships will certainly change and there are no formulas to predict which way they will go. But be mindful of your own control issues. We’ve all got them–we are human!
As the ex-Doormat moves from a model of enabling to a model of empowering, great gifts begin to reveal themselves. The greatest gift we can give ourselves and others is our own well being. Another gift is to allow the person to be him or herself even with all their shortcomings. A third gift is getting a balance of power in the relationship and learning and using the healthy skills of open systems. When we get a clear understanding of the misuse of power in relationships, we can work to clean up our system. Healthy systems give everyone a piece of the power. That is called equality in relationships.
This article is taken from my bestselling book, The Doormat Syndrome available on Amazon.