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Leadership Lessons #3: Symbiosis

Arvid Buit | 1 May 2020

Today we’re going to talk about symbiosis. It is a bit heavier then previous subjects, but please bear with me. I will try to make the complex facts easy digestible and place it all in a realistic context you can relate to.
People cannot give what they have not received themselves

What is symbiosis?

The words symbiosis means something like ‘living together’, but actually is more like being together. Together being one, would be my way to describe symbioses. It all starts with you inside the safe womb of your mother, when she’s pregnant. As this embryo you are completely depending on your mother. Your are physically one. Fully symbiotic and actually sharing blood, food, warmth and connection. 24/7, for about 9 months in a row. And then, suddenly, you are born. It is a bit of a bloody thing and you will never remember a moment of it. Luckily. But for sure, things change from this moment on forward. You experience something we call frustration. Because suddenly not everything is there. You are not automatically warm, and fed nor are you feeling the comfortable touch of your mummy. If all is well and your mother is taking her tasks seriously, she will answer your frustration with the right action. So if you feel cramped, she will put a warm water bottle in your bed, to keep you comfortable, or softly rubbing your tummy. If you have just filled your diaper with all kinds of nasty stuff, she will release you by changing it with a clean one. With this, she will build your trust. You learn to trust that if you experience frustration, your mother is there to help you. Unconditionally. And don’t take this word lightly. Because a baby is completely helpless. And useless by the way. So there is nothing to give back. In the first three months this little treasure can’t even smile. The mother gives all this trust and love, with nothing in return. Take this in for a moment. Create a mental picture. And label it as ‘SYMBIOTIC LOVE AND CONNECTION’. It is the purest form of unconditional love you will ever experience. If all is good. Because in 10 to 15% of all cases, things are not very good. The baby is not fed with this beautiful meal of love and connection. There are basically two ways this can go wrong. Either you get too much of the good thing, or none at all. The attachment between mother and child is not very healthy. Note at this moment, that this is not a reproach in any way. People can’t give what they have not received themselves. So in the case of too much symbiosis, the mother gave the baby a lot. More than it needed. And quicker than needed. Because in a normal development, the time between frustration and trust builds up slowly. If you are this little baby, only a few seconds of wild noise make your parents respons. But let’s say you are five years old and ask your mother for some sweets. She might say ‘Go outside and play with your friends, if you get back in later you will get some sweets’. In the mean time, you have actually learned that this promise results in actions. You trust her, even when this takes two hours in between. When mothers spoil their children, this time will not be two hours. Or two minutes. They will give the child too much and too fast. With this, the child develops a false idea about the world and himself. ‘I am special and people are here to serve me’. Even this small 4-year-old, can act this way. You might know someone with this completely annoying child. But remind: it is not the child’s fault. And it is not the mother’s fault. It is a logical evolution of the past. In the other situation, where the child gets no symbiosis at all, we see neglect. Children growing up with parents that are not able to feel any attachment, possibly because of alcohol or drug abuse. But my clients are typically over 50, and their parents might have live through World War 2. These parents gave the child everything they needed. But first of all, it was just about stuff. Emotions were non existing because parents where suffering from extreme trauma. These children feel non-symbiotic as well. Also, the things they got, the love they received, was always conditional. ‘Do your best, get results, win in sports’. By doing this, they got love and recognition. But always with a price. Both the spoiled and the neglected children will grow up with an attachment disorder. It depends on the neurobiological blueprint they are born with, how they will develop. But either way: they are not going to show any reciprocal communication. The spoiled child will be very happy until the age of four. Then he or she will attend school and be completely anxious from that moment on. Because mummy taught the child that he is special and people are there to serve. But mummy forgot to tell the teacher and the other children. So it is going to be an extremely scary and dissociative world. In which the child will probably respond by blowing up their posture and behaviour, showing they do not care and are ready to lead the pact. The neglected child learned a very bitter lesson. ‘People are not there for me, so I will just have to do everything on my own.’ With this in mind, the child will not engage with other children in school. Proving himself right, because no one will actually be there. They might try, but this child is so disturbed, that he will always be insecure, extremely sensitive to danger and convinced that people at any moment in time will stab him in the back. So imagine this group of children, divided in three groups. Group 1 is the ‘healthy’ group, with children that are connected and loved in a sensitive and symbiotic way. Practically none of them wants to be a leader. Because no one gets this e-mail one day from Jeff Bezos, asking to chair the board of Amazon. No one in the world. People on this level fought for it. Payed an incredible prize. And healthy people are certainly not willing to go through the pain, uncomforted period, frustration and misery. The second group consists of the neglected children. They are not willing to connect to others, and learned to deal with things themselves. Probably they will become extremely good at something, but not in a team context. You will find these people in science, as an artist, writer or lonely professional. Working very hard, proving themselves right. The last group is all about the spoiled children, being anxious and blowing up their self-image in order to feel safe. This group will probably try to enter the world of business and success. That sound a bit harsh you might think? Well, no leader in the world got his or her position for free and none of them found the ride pleasant. Actually, if I ask these people when they retire if it was all worth it, most of them will say: no, it’s not. Our spoiled children, are not spoiled any more. They are insecure and anxious, but with this comes a great deal of sensitivity. Not only useful to protect yourself, but also to judge people and situations fast and correct.  

Leadership Lessons

For this moment, let’s see what the lessons are:
  • Symbiotic attachment is crucial in the development of ones personality
  • Healthy development will probably end up in happy people that don’t feel any urge to become a leader
  • The children with an overdose of symbiotic development, might develop the ambition to get more recognition and love by scoring results and aiming for success
Read Casestudy with Michael: Why is he feeling this miserable? to learn more. If you would like to know more about symbiosis, feel free to send me an e-mail or add me as a connection on LinkedIn and ask your questions. The next subject we will discuss in this series is: Oxytocine.