What New Nervous System Science can Tell Us about Gender Issues and Corporate Culture
Our bodies have two different types of nervous system functioning: one to help us when we deal with life-threatening danger and the other to maintain our bodies in times of safety.
When we sense life-threatening danger, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode. The fight-or-flight response creates immediate action without thought, supplying us with superhuman abilities to fight or flee whatever danger has presented itself. We often perceive this fight-or-flight response in masculine terms: possessing machismo, manning up, having balls.
Current trends in corporate culture have exposed dysfunctional gender roles. Many of my corporate clients worry about doing their jobs because they sense their managers trying to push them into hyperperformance. The pressure to “rise to the occasion” feels overwhelming to some. To others, it initially feels invigorating but is ultimately unsustainable.
Goals that require a perfect set of circumstances for completion can activate the chemical cocktail that sets in motion a fight-or-flight response. When we shoot off that burst of chemistry, it allows for superhuman feats, but it also exhausts the body and disconnects executive brain functioning.
Testosterone and Oxytocin
Having high levels of testosterone makes people more likely to fire off fight-or-flight chemistry. We think of them as having shorter fuses. They may hope that pushing themselves into fight-or-flight mode will make them superheroes. It mostly makes a mess.
Using fight-or-flight response for day-to-day activation keeps people out of touch with their bodies. When we are in fight or flight, we cannot feel our need to rest, eat, drink or go to the bathroom. When we cannot recognize urges to eat, we cannot recognize when we are full. We overeat or undereat.
Sustainable functioning requires presence. When we are in fight-or-flight mode, we are not capable of . Our motivation swings between hypermotivation (run the motor until we run out of gas) and a zombie-like lack of motivation.
Getting back in touch with our bodies requires a return to a sense of safety. When we feel safe, we have higher levels of oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that balances testosterone in the body. Those of us with higher levels of oxytocin are more capable of refraining from “firing off.” Oxytocin is present in all humans, but people born female have more than those born male.
Oxytocin is the neuropeptide of love—mother-infant love, romantic love, love of nature and pets. Because folks with higher levels of oxytocin are less likely to shoot into fight or flight, they can be deemed inferior in times when fight-or-flight response is useful, although this response is rarely useful in modern times.
Using fight-or-flight response for day-to-day activation is like running up credit card debt. It provides short-term acquisition that creates a long-term deficit. In our bodies, these energetic deficits result in dysfunction and disease.
We all have testosterone and oxytocin. The dance of the two within our bodies helps us self-regulate and care for ourselves. Self-regulation prevails over fight-or-flight mode these days in all but a few rare occasions. Acceptance of this truth requires a surrendering of old gender ideas.
In the past, marriage was primarily an economic arrangement. Before herding and farming became common, short-fused tendencies to burst into fight-or-flight response were useful for hunting game and fighting off predators. Oxytocin was useful for patient foraging and for tending of the young.
As herding and farming became the norm, hormone-based divisions of labor became unnecessary. Knee-jerk reactions had less value. Today in many cultures, marriage for love is prized.
During all these cultural shifts, gender role assignments brought some organizational structure to communities. Now gender roles can trap us into ways of functioning that no longer serve us. As a result, we are expanding the characteristics that define gender and even questioning the value of the idea of gender entirely.
Joseph Campbell and other mythologists often picture masculine and feminine characters in stories as representations of aspects that exist within each of us. We all have testosterone and oxytocin. The dance of oxytocin and testosterone in our bodies represents an inner marriage that serves self-regulation.
When we use the day-to-day activation that is available in the body—when we let our oxytocin dance with our testosterone—we can keep our wits about us. Creativity blossoms. Necessity can mother invention. When we believe necessity requires us all to “man up,” we cut ourselves off from the maternal part of ourselves—the part that can nurture projects to fruition.