What Is Domination Culture?

Most of us were raised in what I like to call domination cultures.

Domination cultures run on power and control, shame and blame, fear and righteousness. In these cultures, we’re conditioned to see the world through one primary (often unconscious) question: What is wrong?

When a friend cries, we ask, what’s wrong?
When someone is angry, we wonder, what’s wrong?
When we feel ashamed or embarrassed, we ask, what’s wrong with me?
When someone cuts us off or behaves in offensive ways, we ask, what’s wrong with them?

Sound familiar?

The question “what’s wrong” has become so deeply embedded in our cultures that we often don’t even realize how habitually we think and perceive through this lens, but once we become aware of it we start seeing it everywhere.

Furthermore, the question of what’s wrong usually results in one of two answers: You or Me.

You’re wrong or I’m wrong.

If I conclude that there’s something wrong with you…

I’ll feel more angry and righteous. I’ll feel more invested in changing and controlling you. I’ll try to coerce and manipulate you to be more like me — for your own good of course. When I believe you’re the problem, I start a well-meaning campaign to help you wake up, become more aware, be better, improve. I want to fix you.

And usually, if we’re living in a domination culture, our tools for changing others are what I like to call domination tools: evaluation, judgment, criticism, comparisons, shaming you, blaming you, guilt-tripping you, punishing you, and rewarding you. We see ourselves as subtly better than this other person, more evolved, more insightful, and healthier, and this perception breeds an entitlement in us. We think we can force others to become who we think they should become.

We take a “one-up” position and then feel surprised and indignant when others aren’t grateful for all that we’re trying to do for them. We increase our forcefulness and begin to demand that they change and be different. We increase the volume and the intensity. The punishments get worse. The rewards get more enticing. We try anything to get them to change according to our agenda. But all that this really accomplishes, sadly, is an increase in rebelliousness, oppositionality, and defiance, or a temporary submission that breeds toxic resentment in the shadows.

Sound familiar at all?

If I conclude there’s something wrong with me…

I tend to become more anxious, depressed and apathetic. My mood sinks. My motivation sinks. My self-esteem sinks. I check into therapy. I read a gazillion self-help books in my quest to fix myself.

And I tend to use the same tragic domination tools, but now on myself: I judge myself, berate myself, guilt myself, shame myself. I may harm myself, punish myself, isolate myself — all in a tragic attempt to help myself learn, grow, heal, and evolve.

The more I demand that I be different, the meaner I am to myself, the greater my internal conflict becomes and the less energy I have overall.

Again, sound familiar?

Tragically, domination tools and domination consciousness simply increase human suffering and keep us stuck in power struggles and cycles of dysfunction and violence.

So what can we do instead?

We need to be asking different kinds of questions. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with them?” or “what’s wrong with me?” we can start asking questions like this:

  • What would help?
  • What is needed here?
  • What happened to them? What happened to me?
  • What matters deeply to them? What matters deeply to me?
  • How can we move forward together?

Cultures of healing, empathy, collaboration and co-creation emerge when we start asking new questions; when we start to develop trauma-informed and developmentally-aware responses to what we used to pathologize, judge, and reject; when we re-humanize ourselves and others.

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Writer, speaker, psychologist, and consultant offering practical tools and insights for conscious, compassionate, courageous living. Based in Minneapolis, MN.

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Yvette Erasmus PsyD

Yvette Erasmus PsyD

Writer, speaker, psychologist, and consultant offering practical tools and insights for conscious, compassionate, courageous living. Based in Minneapolis, MN.

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