THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOANALYSIS 35:33-39 (1975)
THE NEED TO D O M I N A T E * Bernard Robbins In any discussion on the need to dominate it is important to determine the objective of the domination or the object of the domination. Otherwise, we may find it difficult to determine whether we are dealing with needs that are normal or needs that are abnormal. The progress and growth of civilization has depended in large part upon our domination and mastery of things rather than of people. The need to dominate things has made it possible for us to develop in a civilized way. We can regard as normal our mastery of the soil and of the ores and minerals we have extracted from it, our mastery of chemistry, physics, air, fire, and so on, as well as our building of machines and tools. The need to master nature develops out of necessity; it is created from the need to exist and to exist well. It is only because of this domination that we continue to master more and more things. This kind of domination we can at all times regard as normal, and it is to be striven for. What I shall discuss here, however, is a different kind of need for domination - the need to dominate people, to master, enslave, and exploit them. We must always consider as abnormal the need for domination of people. Our mastery of things and our domination of nature has, in effect, been possible through the ability of human beings to get along with one another and to work together. The need to dominate others is abnormal in a psychological sense because of its effect on the individual himself. It stands in the way of his developing into as rich and happy an individual as he might be. It is also to be considered abnormal because of its effect on others, the dominated. In psychoanalysis and psychiatry, when we speak of the needs to dominate, we are concerned not only with the manifest behavior of the people ~vho are dominating but also with those factors that are not observable and which are disguised and covered by many kinds of manifest attitudes. Most of us are familiar with the kind of person who thinks he is a leader and who must control and manipulate the behavior of others. These are the bosses, who are concerned with the mastery of people but not necessarily with their exploitation. This group is obvious and easily identifiable. But there is another kind - for example, an invalid mother who has been bedridden for ten or fifteen years and who is apparently very helpless and very dependent upon her immediate family for her needs. This would seem to be a person who certainly would have no need to dominate. She is helpless, and for years her only contact with the world has been through her family. Yet is it quite possible that behind her facade of helplessness and weakness and the necessity of her dependence upon all members of *Lecture delivered December 9, 1943, under the auspicesof the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis,by Bernard Robbins, M.D., deceased in 1959. This paper and another were ciiscovered among the Association'sfiles, and a decision was made to publish one in this issueand the other in a forthcoming issue. Ed.
her family, there are needs to control and exploit the situation. No noise or move is made in the household without some regard for her illness. She knows everything that is going on, and she controls not only the behavior of her own children but the behavior of the children of the second generation as well. The devices and skills she employs to secure this control are remarkable, sometimes just a gesture of increased illness. If her daughter happens to want to take the night off, this helpless woman might have a headache or say that she is in some way feeling worse. This is a direct interference with the daughter's activity. The daughter feels ashamed to go out if her mother is feeling worse, so she stays home and her husband goes off alone. Under a facade of weakness, we get an illustration of the need to dominate which is beyond the awareness of the family members. If anyone were to accuse her of domination, she would be aghast at the idea and would insist upon the authenticity of her illness and suffering. Here is another brief illustration along these same general lines. An extremely retiring person - a shrinking violet if ever I saw o n e - h a s impressed all her associates as well as her immediate acquaintances as very sweet and amiable, with no need to dominate or exploit others. They think she is extremely simple and retiring and that she finds it difficult to approach other people. Yet in her intimate contacts, usually within the first contact she establishes, she impresses the other person as extremely intelligent. What she does is filter out of the other person some little secret, usually under the guise of appeal and helplessness and the wish to seek some kind of advice. For example, she needed some advice about taking a particular course. She had a choice of two similar courses and wanted to know which one would be better for the subject she was studying. The person she asked was put in the position of judging the merits of the two courses, but, because there was something exceedingly helpless and honest in the way she asked his advice, he finally said he thought Professor A was the more advanced. She then went to another friend of the two men and asked his advice. She told him that C had said A was the more advanced instructor, but whom did he think would be better for her? D became quite infuriated because he happened to be quite fond of Professor B. He went to C and asked him what he was doing influencing anyone who was considering a course. Here we see an extremely retiring person who, within a period of about fifteen minutes, succeeded in causing a group of people who had been very friendly, to have suspicions of one another. The satisfaction she received was that she had been able to manipulate four authorities. The people involved had all become angry with one another while she was sitting outside feeling very much on.top. I think these two examples give some idea of what is meant by unconscious needs for domination and some of the forms, devices, and skills employed in bringing it about. First, one must have a clear picture of the conditions or the needs out of which these particular drives for domination arise. We must bear in mind when we speak of the need for domination that we are talking about only one aspect of the structure of a personality, that there are a number of drives and needs that add up to make any one person different from any other. We must consider the conditions out of which these needs spring. They do not spring from thin air, for people are not born with the need to dominate and exploit. There are certain conditions in childhood which tend to create in the child first the
THE NEED TO D O M I N A T E
feeling of helplessness; second, the feeling of being in a hostile world; and third, the feeling of being isolated and apart from that world and at the same time isolated from himself. I do not mean physical helplessness, which is taken for granted, but a feeling of not belonging to the family group or indeed to any world. By isolation from himself I mean the child's attitude toward himself, that which goes into making him into a person who is real. I mean that there is no warmth toward himself, no feeling of affection for himself, no feeling that he, as a person, amounts to something and has value. The feeling of belonging is strikingly apparent very early in the infant. We see this when he first begins to explore himself, to examine his fingers, toes, or ears. One can receive an impression of whether he feels that these belong to him and whether they give him some satisfaction. Most of the attitudes just mentioned start to have an impact early and develop more as time goes on. There is a particular kind of void in which there is a feeling that one has no identity of one's own. This will manifest itself in the child's inability to make decisions on his own, in his need to conform, and in his inability to say "This is mine" when he is playing with others or when he is in a situation with an authority where the need to be assertive is apparent. Lack of identity leads the child to depend upon others for his values and standards. This feeling of dependence is created entirely out of the relationship of the child to the significant people in his environment (his mother or nurse and, later on, father, brothers, sisters, relatives, teachers). We can understand the development of this lack of esteem for himself if the child is exposed to parents who are bad, who are cruel, who withdraw their affection (which is absolutely essential to the development of any selfconfidence). We can also understand this if the parents do not pursue a constant kind of activity, if they are unreliable about keeping their promises to the child. The child feels that he is in an atmosphere that is not trustworthy. However, the same kinds of feelings develop in children whose parents would be considered good and acceptable. The parent serves a role in conveying to the child the particular institutions that exist in society. The parent is the medium through which the child learns of certain institutions, certain standards that exist in the world. Frequently these institutions are inadequate or inconsistent, and regardless of whether the parents are good or bad, they convey this inadequacy and inconsistency to the child. This may result in the child's need to distance or isolate himself from his own inner needs and wants. On the one hand, we demand that the child conform with certain established institutions - that he should not be aggressive, that he should make no demands, that people will expect him to be good, kind, and amiable, that "the meek shall inherit the earth." Yet, on the other hand, we insist that he be successful, and the only way he can be successful is to be aggressive in society, to dominate and exploit others. There are many such institutions that, whether we are aware of it or not, stand in opposition to one another. These are filtered through to the child by both good or bad parents. Frequently these inconsistencies also create this feeling of nonacceptance of the child to himself. Let us turn to the child. We have a youngster who feels alone. He feels isolated and
apart from a world of hostile people and may feel very tiny, very weak. He may feel unacceptable to himself, he may be very critical of himself, he may be very sensitive and feel unloved, apart from the group and apart from the family. His equilibrium with the world is unsteady and causes him to feel uncertain and anxious. Out of this develops many vulnerabilities, many sensitivities. The slightest word, the slightest comment or reproach, can make him react with humiliation. He begins to develop dreams in order to establish himself as a human being, in order to begin to develop some self-confidence. This process is common and healthy at certain periods in our lives. Such dreams take all kinds of forms. The child is going to rule the world, he isgoing to discover somethingthat will revolutionize the world. More than that, he is going to be king and have many slaves, he is going to manipulate people and tell them what to do. He is going to be on a plane so high that nobody will be able to hurt him again, and he will be able to take anything that he desires, and nobody will be able to reproach him for what he does. In certain periods these fantasies are universal and may vanish if relationships with other people become satisfactory. It is then that the child can develop self-confidence. The children we are discussing here are those whose fantasies remain and with time become more and more expansive, finally turning into needs for power. Out of this derives a variety of drives for power which manifest themselves in many ways, but it is important to remember that they have their origin in the need to reestablish some equilibrium between the self and others. That is, in addition to the need for power and the need to dominate, other drives are kept alive and active in the individual. Nothing stands still in human activity. These drives may become more imperative or they may be converted into something else. Underlying the need to dominate is a feeling of helplessness, of being alone in an extremely hostile world. The individual feels: Now that I can dominate, involve, and manipulate people so that they will do my will, I can feel that I am in an atmosphere that is safe. The aim is to have fears removed and to achieve some security. But actually the drives themselves defeat the very end the person had in mind. He does not obtain what he is striving for, and, because of its effect on other people, this kind of drive is always destructive. These drives and their effects are related; there is no single drive that ever stands as an entity. Whenever something is formed, it always acts as a focus for the formation of something else. When something is invented to gratify a need, that invention creates another need, and another invention has to be created to satisfy it. The same process goes on in a personality. When the feeling of helplessness and fear is converted to the need for power, these power drives themselves invent other things that will defeat the individual's goal of achieving a sense of inner security. Another factor associated with the drives for power is that there are no limitations to what one can do, and any interference is regarded as a threat.This picture is familiar to the psychoanalyst, who is familiar with the need to dominate others. Persons with this need begin by making harmless demands, and when they encounter any interference they fly into a rage, accusing the other person of standing in their way, not letting them grow, not allowing them the freedom to live and expand as they have a right to. Another attitude that develops along with this is that the person with the need to dominate gets
THE NEED TO DOMINATE
illusions about himself. He begins to feel that he deserves this kind of eminence, this kind of power. He believes that he deserves the conditions under which he can exploit other people because he is not like other people but far above them. We often encounter this particular attitude in people who happen to be born into certain positions of power and who insist upon remaining enthroned by virtue of that fact. The person with these drives never feels safe or secure. Each one of these drives requires defense upon defense, and as he keeps going he is more and more afraid of other people, feels more and more hostility, and makes more and more demands. He fails to do what he has set out to do, for his desire is to feel as if he belongs to the world; he wants to get away from the feeling that he is isolated. Yet everything he does, every action he takes, only tends to alienate the world from him more and more, and he finds that the very conditions that he had hoped to free himself of are necessarily greater. He is thus more isolated, more alienated in an atmosphere of hostility. To summarize, in human beings the need to dominate is always abnormal, despite the fact that it might seem at times to be expedient. It sets in motion other drives; it does not exist alone. It is destructive to the person and destructive to those around him, that is, other human beings to whom he wants to relate.
How does it happen that the infant has no affection for himself when it it seems that what the child would know best would be himself?
A n s weF:
The lack of affection the child has for himself is something that grows out of his relationship with the parents; the child does not know himself best. The first thing the child knows is the mother or person from whom he gets his food. In a sense the affection a person, particularly an infant, has for himself is a reflection of the amount of affection, without anxiety, without fear, that the people around him have for him. If the infant feels loved, safe, and secure, he knows that his needs for food, warmth, and affection are going to be cared for. Under those conditions, we can rest assured that the child will develop some affection for himself.
Why does the child hit upon the need to explqit others? Why not some other need or manifestation?
This depends upon what specific experiences the child has had and can only be answered in terms of the child's actual experiences. Frequently, he will try out many things, among which he hopes to find one that will achieve his end. He will employ any number of skills, depending upon the character of the people around him, and he may find some of these skills of value to him. This may develop into the need to dominate. The answer to this question would definitely depend upon the life history of the person.
What is the role of the person who lives in close, intimate contact with such a dominating personality? What kind of skills should he employ with him?
Well, I should say he is probably out of luck. What we usually encounter is that the person who has the need to dominate does not come to the psychiatrist. It is usually the other person who comes to ask what is wrong with him. I would say that the dominating person would be impossible to live with. If you interfere with him, he becomes unmanageable, and if you appease h i m - I think we all know what happens when we employ appeasement. One usually tries everything possible to get along with this type of individual, but he is impossible to live with.The only thing that might work would be a threat to leave him. Perhaps, under such a threat, he might do something, because as much as they need power, they must have one person with whom they have some contact. There must be at least one person over whom the power can be exerted.
Isn't it true most of us have some need to dominate because present-day society tends to make it necessary?
I think that is true. However, there are other needs in us of such a nature that we can still manage to get along with our fellow men and work together instead of against one another.
Would you say that the dominating characteristics a r e pertinent to leadership?
The person who frequently assumes the role of leader is the person who has these characteristics. However, they are not essentially the qualities of what a leader should be but actually are destructive to the person who assumes the role and to the people he leads. A real leader is not one who can make others do his will, but should be one who can see the needs of others and is able to help them by his actions. That is quite different from the characteristics that I described.
Is there any cure for the urge to dominate?
Sure there is.
You have not mentioned revenge among the motives for the need to dominate.
I did not mention it but it certainly exists. These people never forget an injury, and vindictiveness is one of the significant trends that accompanies this kind of ~;haracter.
Do you believe that the need to dominate always leads to insatiable demands?
If one who never had been able to obtain a feeling of esteem for himself now finds that he is trying to dominate others for a cause, should that person try to do something about it?
THE NEED TO DO MI NATE
,4 n S wey."
I think so. Again, when one refers to people in terms of a cause, it is not a matter of trying to dominate people but things. If the cause is a good cause, then the domination is not just of a person but of a situation. However, there are many worthwhile causes that have involved with them many people who are not worthy.
If you mean the desire to dominate people is all wrong, isn't the desire to dominate things wrong, too?
That is different from dominating people - the domination of natural forces in terms of what is necessary and doesn't get us into this kind of trouble.
Suppose a person who is healthy, educated, and has no neurotic needs to dominate finds himself in a situation where late in his life he is confronted by a dictator in his country - what would his reaction be?
n s WeF."
I would expect that person would be frightened at first. However, he would not develop a neurosis. He would be aware of a very hostile environment, but if he is a healthy person, he would not feel helpless, he would not feel that he could not do anything about it. A neurotic person would not be able to act. A healthy person who feels confronted with a hostile environment and wants to do something about it can still use a great deal of activity against the hostility, even though he may not be able to act overtly. They both would feel frightened, but the neurotic person may not be able to do anything about it. The healthy person will try to get into action of some kind.