Submissive people are mainly characterized by having low self-esteem and, therefore, present significant problems when it comes to relating healthily and maturely. This can be seen in their behavior and their mood, although in general terms their behavior tends to be characterized by self-surrender and their mood tends to be negative.
Some people are submissive in a very generalized way. However, others can be perfectly mature people in some aspects of their lives and completely submissive in others, they can even behave in a very authoritarian way in some relationships and in a very submissive way in others.
Given its complexity, the human being is very contradictory, so we must carefully determine what we are calling submission, in what area of a particular person’s life we see it, and also take into account whether that person has the same perception as we do or not. Of course, it is important to make it clear that, when we talk about submissive people in this article and their personality characteristics, we are not referring to those people who, in a responsible, assertive and agreed way (that is, very little submissive in the sense we have defined at the beginning) assume submissive roles in their sexual life as a way to get pleasure.
How we become submissive people
Submission is a behavioral pattern -and also a communicative or relationship style- that has its source in a lack of self-esteem and, therefore, is a lack of assertiveness.
No person has 100% healthy self-esteem, so no one is perfectly confident in every aspect and situation of their life. Therefore, we all are submissive to someone at some point because, for various reasons, we are unable to withstand pressure and defend our needs or points of view perfectly. The problem arises when someone is submissive in many areas of their life or is always submissive in some specific area (for example in their relationships with their partner/friend, or with their family, or at work, etc.).
A person with healthy self-esteem is someone who -in general- feels good about themselves without the need to denigrate others and is confident in their ability to be accepted by others. That is why they tend to relate assertively: they defend and express their tastes, opinions, and needs firmly but respectfully, without bullying others or being a toxic person, thus fostering healthy and balanced relationships.
When a person does not have healthy self-esteem, it is more difficult for them to interact in this way. Sometimes it’s because they consider others to be a threat against which they must defend themselves, even preventively. Other times it’s because they don’t value themselves positively and think that their needs, their points of view, or their rights are not important and don’t have to be taken into account and, to not be excluded, it is better to give priority to others. Then they become submissive people.
Those who see threats everywhere and defend themselves by attacking are authoritarian people: they impose their position on others. Those who give in, keep quiet, and systematically put others first because they believe that they are not important, are submissive people.
Both styles have consequences on people’s well-being. When someone does not give importance to their needs and points of view, it is difficult for them to develop and satisfy them, and this can end up leading to toxic relationships and risky behaviors caused by not valuing their well-being or integrity as they deserve.
Moreover, the more submissively we behave, the more we reinforce a vital state of helplessness and hopelessness, as well as of low self-worth: every time we give in unnecessarily, we reinforce within ourselves the idea that we are not important, that we should not be respected, or that others are inconsiderate and selfish people who eat up all our space. Therefore, the person’s mood is affected.
How to fix the submission that harms us
Beyond punctual or unavoidable submissions, we mustn’t settle into this way of functioning in a generalized manner, especially if the submission we show is very extreme.
No one has perfect self-esteem, we must bear in mind that we can be people who value ourselves negatively in some areas of our lives and still have normal and even satisfactory lives. This is possible as long as we value ourselves positively in other facets that balance out.
However, when our self-esteem makes us unable to relate properly as adults then we must try to correct this, if possible with the help of a psychologist who can accompany us through therapy. This way we can detect which areas of our self-esteem are most damaged and why train basic social skills that allow our needs and rights to be taken into account, and learn appropriate models of relationships to know which compromises are reasonable and unavoidable so that relationships flow and we do not confuse them with a permanent pattern of submission to others.
Ways to strengthen a submissive person’s self-esteem
1. Develop their level of awareness and judgment
Help detect what they think feel, need, and like if they are not very clear about it. It is often easier to imitate what the other does so as not to think or not to have to decide what to want or not to face the responsibility of doing it. If this becomes too intense, the submissive person does not know what they think or what they want, so they must train it.
2. Give them space to express themselves
Do not overwhelm. Take an interest in them. Ask them what they think about things and what they feel like doing, listen to them, support them, reinforce those positions in which we agree with them so that they know that what happens to them or what they want has a value and that sometimes it’s an experience shared with us.
3. Help them differentiate disagreement from hostility
To show them that they may disagree with us but that this does not influence our affection for them. At the root of submission is the fear of not being accepted if I show myself as I am or if I disagree with what someone wants. The submissive person needs to reinforce a sufficient experience of unconditionality in affections.
4. Give examples of non-submissive behavior
Offer them assertiveness models that broaden their social and communicative skills. This is done when we educate children and adolescents and teach them how to go shopping, how to ask for things, how to apologize, how to carry out management, etc. We can also adapt this to an adult, without infantilizing them, but at as basic a level as necessary. It is a matter of giving them tools that complement the essential background work that must be done at a psychological level.
5. Find a good therapist
Suggest, if we have enough trust with that person and if we detect that their behavior pattern negatively affects their well-being in a significant way, that it might be interesting to talk about it with a psychologist who can help you see what is happening, why, and how to start amending it step by step. A convenient, inexpensive and completely professional possibility is to have online therapy through ifeel‘s platform, where you can have an informative session completely free of charge before being assigned to the most suitable psychologist for your case.