The Healthy Submissive
By Yalda Tovah
"Discipline gives total freedom;
it allows you to go beyond your limitations, to break through boundaries and reach the highest goal. The path to discipline will not only save a person's life, it will also give it meaning. How? By introducing him to deeper joys and deeper longings, by creating a silence in which the whisper of the heart can be heard. Truly, discipline is the road to liberation."
In this discussion, I will be talking primarily about the female heterosexual submissive, because I don't know enough about non-heterosexual female submissives and Dominants to know whether this analysis is completely applicable. This focus is not to suggest that lesbian female submissives and their challenges are less worthy of study, merely that I am not equipped at this time to do such a study.
So often, women who are newly aware of their submissive needs endure a period of self doubt around the troubling question: am I sick?
I've seen women read the psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM-IV) and then ask, "do I have borderline personality disorder?"
I am writing here not ONLY about the sexual aspects: "am I sick because I get turned on by images of being taken, used, forced, swept away by masculine energy more powerful than my own?"; I am also writing about the nonsexual aspects of being submissive: "am I sick because I yearn to depend on, and follow the lead of, a man stronger than myself?"
I will attempt to address both aspects in this essay.
What precisely fuels this kind of question, "am I sick?" Why would a woman discovering the language of her nature think she has a mental disorder? Or at the very least, have something very wrong with her?
A submissive discovers, or more properly, realizes and acknowledges that she functions AT HER BEST in relation to another. And the more intimate, holding, containing that relationship, the better she feels and the better she performs in cardinal areas of adult life: work, friendships, and parenting. Realizing she is at her best in such relation makes her wonder why she can't do it for herself? Why does she need such a relationship to accomplish what she should be able to do for herself?
In thinking about this, I have come to question the cultural determinants of what is considered the highest good. Here in Western society, we place highest value on independence, on "pull yourself up by the bootstraps", on the lone pioneer, the trailblazer, the less needy and more self sufficient. We value competition over cooperation, tangible acheivement over acheivement in relationship. We pay big bucks to men (and the few women) who run big corporations, and less to the nursery school teachers, the nurses, the secretaries, the social workers, the caregivers rather than the producers.
There is something wrong with believing that such independence is the only good. It is especially wrong for the most relatedness-oriented among us, the submissive female.
Part of the newly aware submissive's task is to separate out the internalized voices of her culture: those voices that tell her she is too needy, too dependent, too focused on the others in her life. Once she can articulate what those voices tell her, she can begin to question not HERSELF, but the validity of those internalized values, using her own yardstick to measure her life, rather than our culture's standard.
We can see how perspective is critical in understanding a phenomenon. In a study of moral development in children, for example, Dr. Robert Coles, in a study of moral development in children, researched how children decide what is good and right. To do this, he presented several scenarios describing a moral or ethical dilemma, presented the scenario to school age children, and analyzed the results. The description of the study here is to illustrate the nature of cultural bias and it's impact on individuals.
One of Dr. Cole's scenarios was as follows:
A man has a very, very sick wife, so sick she could die if she doesn't get a particular, very expensive medicine. The man doesn't have the money for the medicine, so in desperation he steals it from a pharmacy.
The children are asked questions about this scenario. Coles found that boys tended to conclude that the man should be punished, because the law is the law, and nobody should break the law. Coles saw this as a higher order of moral reasoning, reflecting the statement, "a nation of laws, not of men." That is, that nobody is above the law, and the rule of law is not situationally defined. The boys applied an abstract universal principle to a singular instance. Coles understood this ability to transcend the personal as a "more evolved" form of moral development.
The girls were deeply troubled by the scenario, and most of them sought ways to solve the man's problem within the context of relatedness: they wondered if the man could ask the pharmacist for the medicine, and offer to work for him to pay for it, or pay him back later. They wondered if the man had friends who could help him pay for the medicine, and they believed he shouldn't be punished for his act of desperation. Their sense of right was situational, and defined within the context of relatedness. They did not come to articulate an abstract universal principle, but sought to solve the problem within the context presented. Coles saw this as a less logical, lower order of moral development because the girls could not emotionally distance themselves from the central human drama in the scenario.
After Coles' work was published a woman named Carol Gilligan reviewed the studies that Cole had done and reanalyzed them, in a book called, "In a Different Voice." Rather than seeing the boys' responses as evidence of "higher" development and the girls' as "lower" she redefined them as different. And she pointed out that the girls responses, so firmly rooted in human context and relatedness were devalued by a society in which the typically masculine is of more cultural worth than the typically feminine. She asked, "why is it considered a 'higher' order of moral development to value universal principle over human context?" and in so doing highlighted the sexism inherent in the analysis.
As we can see, this type of analysis is extremely useful in understanding typical submissive conflicts. We tend to ask the wrong questions: "am I bad, sick, weak?", when we should be asking, "is there something missing from the yardstick I use to measure myself?"
If one looks at capacity for relatedness as a strength, as a good, then it becomes clear that the submissive has a talent for this, for relatedness. And that seeking a partner who can meet her need for this relatedness is a good thing, a healthy thing.
If we begin our analysis without the cultural assumptions about what is of "higher" value, we can begin to understand that it is possible for a woman to be submissive, and to be healthy. And we can try to imagine what a healthy submissive functions like, and how she developed her adult personality. Let's start backwards, and ask ourselves, what might a healthy adult submissive woman "look" like, psychologically speaking:
1. The healthy submissive is capable of, and thrives on, intense, intimate, emotionally open relationships. This is often evident in the number of nourishing, sustaining, and life affirming friendships she makes over the years.
2. The healthy submissive is a giver. She often needs help to ration herself because her impulses nearly always lead her to want to do good for others.
3. The healthy submissive is capable of intense joy, especially in the context of a sustaining relationship.
4. The healthy submissive finds significant relaxation when properly related. She is at ease in that place.
5. The healthy submissive has finely tuned interpersonal sensitivity. She is reactive to subtle shifts in the emotional tone of others.
6. The healthy submissive has a fluidity of self, a flexibility that enables her to adapt to changing circumstances.
7. The healthy submissive is playful.
8. The healthy submissive has no more than the usual cultural conflicts about her body, and its goodness and beauty.
9. The healthy submissive takes pride in her accomplishments.
10. The healthy submissive accepts herself as she is, knowing that while her culture values independence and self sufficiency, she has strong dependency needs and that there is no inherent "wrongness" about those needs.
11. The healthy submissive seeks nourishing relationships.
12. The healthy submissive, in accepting herself "as is" is tolerant of others. But neither will she allow anyone to tell her what her truth should be.
13. The healthy submissive has a reasonable self concept, aware of her difficulties as well as her strengths.
14. The healthy submissive hunger is to be the object of an intense and penetrating understanding. When her nature is understood and she is held in a loving and firm frame, her devotion is almost limitless. The healthy submissive has an enormous capacity for devotion, from which springs her service.
What makes a woman a submissive?
As with all conjectures about human development, the answer is likely two-fold: a combination of nature and nurture, biology and environment.
There is a whole body of literature that makes observations about temperment. This literature talks about the variations in behavior in infancy as a manifestation of temperment: the expression of regularity, responsiveness, and reactivity. In the area of regularity, some infants are regular and predictable from the get-go: they sleep regularly, wake at predictable intervals to nurse, and have predictable periods of alertness in which they begin the earliest socialization. Some infants are irregular: they will one day sleep for an 8 hour stretch, then be awake all night, the next day they will sleep for one hour intervals through a 24 hour period. In the area of responsiveness, some infants will find novelty and intense stimulation aversive, and will withdraw or become irritable when presented with those; some infants are stimulated to engage and explore novelty and intense stimulation. Some infants have high thresholds for sensation, requiring a relatively intense stimulus to become aversive, some have low thresholds, and respond to mild stimulation. Some infants will for example, be intensely distressed by a wet diaper; some will not register discomfort until diaper rash sets in.
The sum total of these innate, biologically founded responses make up temperment. It is easy to see what people mean by an "easy" baby: one who sleeps, eats, and eliminates regularly and predictably; one who has a moderate response to stimulation, neither withdrawing nor reacting intensely; one who is drawn easily into social exchanges, and provides pleasurable reinforcement of socialization with their caregivers, one who is easily "read" and easily comforted, one who accepts change without undue distress.
I think one of the traits in this biologically grounded array that makes up temperment is common to all submissives. And that is social responsiveness. I would suggest that the baby who is tempermentally "set" to register and respond selectively and sensitively to social cues has the seeds of submissiveness in her nature. This is the baby that will search the environment for a human face; who will be attuned to, and very responsive to the human voice; who will preferentially and selectively attend to, and process, human interaction.
This baby, as she grows into childhood, will be easy to control, to shape, especially if she is tempermentally on the "easy" side. This little girl will be exquisitely sensitive to criticism and correction, to disapproval, to praise. Rather than requiring a raised voice to correct, a raised eyebrow will often do.
Even further, this little girl will be exquisitely sensitive to nuance: she will know when others are angry, hurt, sad, bewildered even when they are not spoken about. She has a "sixth sense" about people.
As children do, she requires the adults in her life to validate her perceptions when appropriate. Let's say her parents are troubled by a financial stress, and like good, responsible parents seek to shield her from their stress. The child will pick up on the unspoken tension, sensitive as she is to subtleties of body language, voice pitch, facial expression. She might inquire of her parents what is wrong, and be told "nothing is wrong, honey... go and play." This leaves the child confused: she knows in that way that she knows, that something is wrong. But her perceptions are not validated. She is told nothing is wrong. But her parents, who are not at their best, may be a little short with her, and picking THAT up too, she goes off to play concluding that she must have done something wrong, to be sent away. Part of this is the megalomania of childhood, part of this is a reasonable and logical synthesis of resolving the child's felt sense of things with what she is told.
This kind of interaction, repeated over the years, in the BEST and most loving of families, leads to an adult personality in which there is some anxiety associated with relatedness. The submissive female learns to scan the social environment for signs of trouble, seeks to "fix" the trouble, and all too often, believes herself to be the cause of the trouble. If someone important is tired, the submissive has exhausted them. If someone important is angry, the submissive must have angered them. If someone important is disappointed, the submissive must have failed them.
This trait, this interpersonal sensitivity in its highest expression is when the submissive accurately registers interpersonal nuance, and responds to it with a minimun of self-referral, recognizing that other's emotional states may have nothing to do with the submissive herself. This is how it works for the healthy submissive, who as an adult, often finds great fulfillment working in fields such as social work, nursing, medicine, counselling, teaching.
There are certain vulnerabilities a child constituted with a submissive nature faces.
Because of her intense awareness of interpersonal nuance, she is highly sensitive to both criticism and praise. When criticized, she is likely to feel intense shame; when praised, intense pleasure. Since the shame feels so bad, and the praise so pleasurable, she becomes a people-pleaser. This tends to lead to the development of what psychologists call "an external locus of control." Meaning that child bases her self assessment (am I good or bad?) on factors outside herself. The female submissive defines herself based on what others tell her she is.
Parents have enormous responsibility with such an influenceable child. Nascent talents can either be nurtured or aborted with just a word. This child will likely live up, or down to, whatever is expected of her. Expect more than she can constitutionally do (like academic, athletic, or social success) and she will develop an intense sense of inferiority. Praise her out of proportion to her talents (this is the BEST drawing any child EVER did) and she will develop an inflated sense of self. Accurately and sensitively validate her real abilities and talents, and she will seek goals appropriate to her ability, and take pleasure in acheiving them.
When the environment is reality based, sensitive, and balanced, the child grows up embracing her special ability to be "related" to others, to be sensitive, and has a sense of self in reasonable tune with her true abilities and vulnerabilities, neither excessively self effacing or self aggrandizing.
But if development should go awry, as it too often does for this child, the personality traits she has develop in a distorted manner, and cause her difficulties.
In dysfunctional families, this child suffers more than others with tougher hides, less reactive temperments. She is often the one singled out for physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Her very nature makes her available for use: for the parent's angers, frustrations, sexual impulses, or narcissistic gratification.
When a submissive child is misused in this fashion, she is unable to utilize her interpersonal talents in a constructive way. She must either develop rigid defenses that constrain her ability to be flexible as an adult, or be blown about by the winds of other's emotions all her life, or become stuck in what are popularly called, "co-dependent relationships."
Women who emerge from childhood with these traits will be more or less consciously submissive in that they are STILL moldable, controllable by others. Those who don't consciously seek a Dominant partner will naturally gravitate to a man who influences, controls her in a benevolent manner. Who accepts her, loves her, nurtures her, and values her sensitivity.
Those who consciously seek a Dominant partner are those who are perhaps, so sensitive that they require not only benevolence, but someone who understands PRECISELY how moldable and influenceable they are, and is capable of using the power to mold her and influence her deliberately and consciously, for her good and the good of the relationship.
In that kind of relationship, the submissive is freed to be all of herself. She is safe enough to feel her exquisitely sensitive reactions to others, to play like a child, to give care and to take care, to be angry, to lose shame.
There is a strength beyond measure in self knowledge and acceptance. There is freedom in jettisoning shame, in letting go of "shoulds."
To know oneself as a submissive woman, to accept that it is neither the terrible thing that society tells us it is, nor the only right and true way to be for OTHERS, is to be free. What is, is.
There are two kinds of strengths: the strength to lead, and the strength to follow; the strength to control, and the strength to yield. There are two kinds of power: the power to strip another's soul bare, and the power to stand naked.
Do not mistake following for weakness, for it is not. Do not mistake yielding for weakness, for in yielding there is resilience. Do not mistake the submissive's need for relatedness for inability to be alone.
Submissive women are not weaklings. They are sensitive people who have a great deal of resilience in the face of their particular challenges.
Submissiveness is a strength seeking a proper context.