Compassion Focused Therapy and the Social Rank System
Dr Lexy Rose – Clinical Psychologist
In this blog, I reflect on the Social Rank System and related themes as described by Paul Gilbert in his 2020 paper and book, Living Like Crazy.
Humans are mammals, designed to live in groups.
In order to prevent constant fighting, evolution has given us a way of detecting our social ‘rank’ or position within a group.
In this blog, I’m going to refer to this as the ‘Social Rank System’ (SRS) – and you can get a sense of this in the diagram on the right
The SRS is associated with a competitive kind of mentality; when this system is activated, we might become particularly focused on social comparisons – i.e. how we compare with others. Alongside this might be a sense of striving – striving to maintain or increase our social value.
Two Important Social Rank Strategies
Within the SRS are two key strategies – I like to think of them like computer programmes that can be switched on or off.
Once running, these programmes will shape our mind and body in very particular ways, affecting how and what we pay attention to, our way of thinking, the kind of physiology that ripples through our body and ultimately will influence how we behave.
The first is the ‘down-rank’ or subordinate programme.
If this comes online, we will feel inferior and ‘external shame’, a sense that we are held negatively in the mind of others. If issues arise, we tend to see them as our fault and so get angry with ourselves.
We might behave in ways that are submissive e.g. people pleasing and going along with others we perceive as superior to us.
We might hear our mind say e.g. ‘I’m worthless, terrible, not good enough’.
The second is the ‘up-rank’ or dominant programme – we will feel some sense of superiority / entitlement and have a more aggressive way of relating to others with perhaps urges to humiliate / shame.
If something were to go wrong, we’re more likely to blame and criticise someone else.
Our mind might tell us different versions of: ‘do they not know who I am? How dare they! I’m going to make them regret that.’
Examples of the Rank System
As you’re reading this, you may have examples in mind of how these programmes play out in the animal kingdom: the alpha male (or female) of a hierarchical group, where subordinates make themselves small and cower to avoid attack from their superior.
Stereotypes from our society might also come to mind that range from the obvious e.g. the bullying critical boss, to more subtle versions e.g. the ‘know-it-alls’ or those overly focused on materialism, the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.
The SRS can also influence broader societal structure leading to organisations and companies being designed around hierarchy.
The SRS can also seep into advertising campaigns that e.g. show us the kind of people that we ‘want to be like’ and the items we ‘need’ to get there (in order to increase our rank/status).
Interestingly, once you are aware of the SRS and its associated programmes, you might begin to notice different versions playing out in just about all domains of human life.
There’s a possible reason for why this; when humans moved away from hunger-gatherer communities to a focus on agriculture, we gained the ability to hold and control resources. This created a focus on competing for power and, in turn, the resources that come with it.
This was emphasised further during the period of industrialisation and the move towards capitalism.
Competition can create a tricky version of drive and motivation where we strive for things like success and relationships with an undercurrent of threat – specifically the threat of social rejection if we don’t get that promotion or that second date.
We might strive for modern-day versions of resources e.g. a beauty product that will make us look a certain way or want to have the latest phone or watch – with an emphasis on showing others that we have those things.
Competition and Misery
Competition creates the conditions for the SRS to come online and can lead to, as Dr Deborah Lee says, human ‘misery’.
The misery that comes from being down-ranked – a deeply painful sense of being not good enough, unlovable or different.
Or misery in the forms of e.g. unpleasant shallowness, arrogance, exploitative practices, callous indifference or actual cruelty towards others from viewing the world from the up-rank position.
Of note, some people cope with our social world by using the up-rank programme as a defence or charade: as an act to try to cover up or hide from the fact they actually feel inferior. This is where we see patterns of ‘threat-based drive’ where our desire to succeed, earn more money, diet to look a certain way or ‘add’ that friend is to try to conceal a core sense of actually being inadequate.
In this situations, the SRS creates a kind of striving to get ‘the bigger’, ‘the better’, so that others see that we have value.
Unfortunately, we also know that the positive feelings that arise when we ‘get’ the things we’ve been striving for, are only temporary; trying to use our drive system to ‘solve’ the social threat of not feeling good enough doesn’t help us heal the underlying sense of being inferior / not belonging in the long-term (see Lee above).
This kind of pattern can affect our relationships with others in many ways e.g. we may feel jealousy when others do well, struggling to be happy for them as it can feel like their success detracts from our own.
It can also affect our relationship with our children as we may put similar pressures on them to do or be a certain way and struggle to hide our disappointment when they inevitably can’t live up to our expectations.
The added problem with this mammalian legacy, is that we are humans not apes.
Russell Kolts describes out brain as like an ‘evolutionary patchwork quilt’ (Kolts, 2012) where ancient mammalian structures sit alongside ‘newer’ parts. These ‘new brain’ competencies include consciousness, a kind of awareness that allows us to monitor, think and compare.
This means that not only can our SRS be activated to try to help us cope when we perceive social threats between us and another person, these up-down rank programmes can play out inside our minds.
The up-rank programme morphs into an inner critic, who can aggressively shame, blame and judge us for our mistakes or parts of us they don’t approve of. Our critic can then direct this anger towards another part of us, our internal down-ranked shamed self, who listens and receives this vitriol. This can leave us feeling deflated/defeated, exhausted from all that striving to try to quieten the critic.
But there is hope – more than hope – our mammalian ancestors have given us another way of relating to ourselves and others.
Mammals and the Caring Motive
When mammals arrived on the scene so too did another kind of reproductive strategy.
Compared to reptiles, mammals have a small number of young and invest time, energy and care to help their infants survive. It is thought that this led to changes to our nervous system and built into us a ‘caring system’ (see figure below).
What’s key is that this system evolved to help us care, bringing with it a completely different physiological infrastructure.
Consider what we mean by care – imagine the archetypal image of the parent and infant together. In response to threat (e.g. of hunger, separation) the infant cries to signal that they are needing and seeking care; the parent responds by providing care in order to alleviate their distress.
Thus, this caring system is designed to help us regulate threat/distress.
And whilst originally designed for parent-infant relationships, over time, this system began to help us help others in our group – thus creating the conditions for cooperation and prosocial behaviour and e.g. sharing resources.
Humans are thought to have been able to live relatively peacefully together, with a sense of belonging and social safeness – meaning that you are held positively in the minds of others, a kind of ‘I matter to you and you matter to me’ mentality (Lee).
This means that when we are able to move into our caring system, we can access a range of different capacities and competencies to motivate us to tune into another’s distress, tolerate it and try to help to alleviate it.
Then, because of our newer brain abilities, we can use the caring system to connect with a caring part of us that can help us with our own internal pain.
Internal Caring Motive: The Compassionate Self
In Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) we call this our ‘compassionate self’, and practice connecting with this part, strengthening it and using to manage our threats – the mistakes, challenges and social rejections that are an evitable part of modern life.
What’s key is that this is going to help us effectively manage our distress because that’s what the caring/compassionate system has been designed to do!
With all this in mind, the key question then becomes how can we move from the SRS into the caring/compassionate system? In CFT we say that there are different steps we can take to do this.
The first involves noticing what system or programme that is online. When we do this, we might notice that we spend a lot of time playing out the up-rank or down-rank programme.
Its key is to remember that this is not your fault!
This is probably, in part, because of the way our culture and society are set up to accentuate these patterns. Also, we are living in the age of social media, which adds another dimension for tricky social comparisons.
It might also be because you are part of a group that is sadly routinely down-ranked by society (obviously or subtly), e.g. people with Intellectual Disabilities (Goad, 2023).
Or you may have had experiences that have understandably shaped you in certain ways e.g. perhaps you’ve been bullied or grown up with authoritative parents or teachers, or had experiences with others that have made you feel really small.
These kinds of experiences can be so powerful to the point where our sense of self gets confused with the inferiority programme; we think that at our core we are worthless, unattractive or no good.
This is like wearing down-rank glasses that we always have on thus shaping the way we see ourselves, others and the world.
The reason why these programmes can influence us so much is because if our ancient human ancestors lost status to the point of being kicked out of the group, the outcome was likely ultimately death.
Its therefore makes sense that these programmes affect us so deeply, in a way trying to warn us that we might be in danger.
Using your Compassionate Mind
Compassionate Mind Training is a core part of CFT – this process teaches us how to mindfully notice which programmes are running through us in a curious, non-judgemental way.
We then learn how to switch out of our threat system through soothing and grounding and then move into our compassionate self (like putting a new pair of glasses on).
With our compassionate self we are able to recognise that whilst we cannot get rid of our threat-based SRS, we can learn to take responsibility for it by understanding the way it works and managing it wisely with care and compassion.
The wisdom of the compassionate self helps us understand and speak to the shamed self to help them reconnect with their fundamental worth as a human being, whose doing their best in a very tricky world.
The courage of the compassionate self helps us to understand that our critic is actually trying to protect us from social rejection but allows us to assertively tell them that the way it’s going about doing this is causing more harm than good!
Our compassionate self helps us move away from threat-based pressures to do or be a certain way, and towards a life with meaning & purpose, still with space for success, but success that is driven by what truly matters to us deep down in our hearts (e.g. comfort, learning/skill development, creativity, friendship, adventure, family, wanting to make a difference).
Our compassionate self also helps us manage the inevitable challenges that come from being human – instead of adding fuel to the fire with shame-based criticism, we use our courage and wisdom to understand and move forward and live our lives to be ‘helpful, not harmful’.
Ultimately this moves us towards a more compassionate world with a focus on human flourishing for all!
Dr Lexy Rose
Kolts, R. (2012) The Compassionate Mind Approach to Managing your Anger. London: Little, Brown Book group
Goad, L. (2023). Compassion-Focused Therapy and People with Intellectual Disabilities: A Renewed Focus. OBM Integrative and Complementary Medicine (1), 1-7.
* Figure adapted from P. 22 of Gilbert, P. (2020). Compassion: From its evolution to a psychotherapy. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 3123. psychology, 11, 3123. & P. 96 Gilbert, P. (2018). Living Like Crazy.York: Annwyn House
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