12 Rules for Life Deep-Dive: Rule 1

Reading Time: 12 mins

Stand up straight with your shoulders back

Stand Up Straight with your Shoulders Back

Peterson starts off 12 Rules with a rule which sets the tone for the rest of the book. Stand up straight with your shoulders back is a call to the reader: you have a duty to stand up for what you believe and take your place in the world, and you can start now if you choose.

While this isn’t always an easy thing to do, Peterson uses this chapter to illustrate the benefits.

The main takeaways from this chapter are:

  • Hierarchy, status and dominance have been crucial aspects of the animal kingdom for millennia, and our psychology is deeply intertwined with our perceived social status;
  • Mistreatment, abuse and uncertainty can warp the way we perceive our social status and make us more likely to be victims of further abuse;
  • We can take steps to improve our situation by standing up for what we want (and against what we don’t want);
  • We have both a right and a responsibility to stand up.

In this post, I’ll look at each of these points and finish by recounting how this chapter impacted me when I first read it in 2019.


The Role of Status

The Nature of Dominance Hierarchies

Peterson begins the chapter by using lobsters, wrens and other animals to explain the importance of dominance hierarchies in the natural world. He explains how hierarchies determine animals’ ability to find food, shelter and mates. The most dominant individuals in a given species will generally have ample opportunities to find all three. Peterson points out that “If a contagious avian disease sweeps through… it is the least dominant and most stressed birds… that will sicken and die first.” and stresses that this is also true of humanity.

The ancient drive for dominance (and its benefits) does come at a cost. Conflict is dangerous for all individuals involved. As Peterson puts it, “…even the victor may be hurt by the fight. That means a third… an undamaged, canny bystander, can move in, opportunistically, and defeat the now-crippled victor. This is not at all a good deal for the first two….”

As a result of inevitable conflict, animals have learned tactics to survive these “fights” without being fatally maimed. They use cautious displays of aggression to ward off potential rivals. If the conflict becomes combat, the defeated party will display submissive signals to the victor. Thus, the victorious individuals will typically display different – more dominant – behaviours to the defeated.

Humans do this too – think of the confident strut or the subdued shuffle. Our body language gives off these unconscious signals.


Status, Neurochemistry, and Behaviour

Peterson suggests that the dominance hierarchy is inherent in all animal species. It is not just a social construct devised by some humans to keep others in check; instead, it’s older than humans and even trees. As a result, our biology – and brains – have developed within these constraints.

He illustrates how lobsters’ lives are shaped by their status within dominance hierarchies. The high-status lobsters get the best food, shelters, and “all the girls”. Peterson states, “Lobsters have been around… for more than 350 million years”, suggesting that hierarchies are a permanent, natural fixture, making them extraordinarily powerful.

The fight for dominance has also shaped lobsters’ neurochemistry. Serotonin, a neurochemical found in both humans and lobsters, makes lobsters more aggressive and increases their dominance behaviours. On the other hand, octopamine increases the lobsters’ stress responses and makes them more likely to flee – increasing their submissive behaviours. Victories increase lobsters’ serotonin while they secrete octopamine when defeated.

While human neurochemistry is a damn sight more complex than lobsters, we too have mechanisms deeply ingrained within us that determine our behaviour. Both our genetics and our developmental environment affect these mechanisms.

Trauma, Abuse, and Feedback loops

Life At the Bottom of The Ladder

After explaining the importance of status, Peterson develops this by describing the dangers of being at the bottom of the social ladder.

He posits that the bottom is a dangerous place to live – let alone thrive. “You have nowhere to live… food is terrible… You’re more likely to fall ill, age rapidly, and die young”. As emergencies are common, your mind and body are constantly on the lookout for the next threat.

He further discusses the impact of this “hyper-response” on your immune system, behaviour, and mood. You can’t plan long-term – why would you bother? – so anything you have is more likely to be used here and now. You react impulsively and see every change as something that will only make things worse.

Having come from a highly dysfunctional home, I’ve seen the impact of this reactive behaviour first-hand. I was constantly afraid as a child. Any joy was likely to be taken away. When my teenage years came around, this “bottom-dog” feeling was made worse by the fact that I was in a private school, surrounded by people who were infinitely “better” than I was. It led me into the depths of an awful depression.


The Power of Abuse

As hierarchies evolved aeons ago, the human brain works within the boundaries they provide. “The ancient part of your brain specialised for assessing dominance watches how you’re treated by other people… and assigns you a status.” If people treat you like you’re worth nothing, this restricts the serotonin secretion and makes you more likely to display submissive behaviours. You’re more likely to be depressed, anxious, and stressed – you need to be to stay alive. You won’t thrive, but at least you can make it through the night. This was my school life, all over.

Uncertainty, abuse, bullying, and neglect can all affect how the “dominance counter” functions. If you grow up in an abusive home, where your worth is questioned day after day, everything seems insecure, and happiness is only ever temporary, your brain assumes you’re at the very bottom. Even when things change – you move out, for instance – the brain is slow to catch up. The neural pathways you’ve forged in childhood and adolescence are not easily rewired.

This can even make further harm more likely. Bullies prey on people who seem “weak” and submit. You’re unlikely to stand up for yourself if you’re at the bottom of the ladder. You’re likely to be more sensitive to cruelty from others.

This creates a feedback loop – you’re treated poorly, act submissively, get treated even worse, and become even more submissive… You’re likely to get picked on, again and again, by sadistic people. Eventually, you might disappear altogether.


Anger, Aggression and Responsibility

Righteous Anger

People who are severely mistreated may shy away from using assertiveness, anger, or aggression. Because of the effect of others’ aggression on us, we’ll bury that angry part for fear of becoming just like them. This is certainly true for me. Growing up with an alcoholic mother and bullying older brother, I’ve seen anger as bad for as long as I can remember.

Anger hurts people. Hurting people is evil. I must not get angry.

But anger is basically the emotional language we use to say, “I don’t want this”. We get angry when our boundaries are stepped on, or our needs aren’t met. My therapist has a phrase for this (also used by Peterson): righteous anger.

Anger can hurt people, but anger can also protect them. This is what most people would call assertiveness. The ability to state what you need from others and (more importantly) what you don’t want. As Peterson states, “The truly appalling potential of anger… to produce cruelty and mayhem are balanced by the ability… to push back… speak truth, and motivate resolute movement… in times of strife.” This was a realisation I’d been working towards for years in my recovery. And here it was, laid out so simply. “If you can bite, you generally don’t have to”.

It is easier said than done to accept that anger is a natural part of life. It is even harder to accept that we have a right to be assertive and pursue the things we want. But it’s important to see that using anger productively is not just a right but a responsibility. Being able to stand up for myself doesn’t just benefit me.

If I can stand up for myself, I can do this for others. If I’m willing to tell people assertively what I need or want, it helps them know how to respond to me and connect. Even if I think I’m worthless, I have a responsibility to others to stand up and challenge the things that are wrong.

That concept truly blew me away when I first understood it. It was like being given permission to live a good life.


How To Stand Up

So how do we take our place? How can we find the strength and will to fight for what we want?

What Peterson proposes is pretty straightforward (at least in theory). It’s the name of the rule, after all. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

Just as our psychology affects our physiology, the reverse can also be true. Putting on a smile, for instance, can make some people feel happier. Consciously breathing more slowly (and therefore reducing heart rate) can make you feel calmer.

Consciously trying to straighten out our posture – resisting the urge to scrunch down like a frightened mouse – gives off signals of confidence and security. It increases lung capacity, allowing better oxygen flow to the brain, making complex decision-making easier. It also gives you a stronger voice, adding authority to your words. Doing this, bit by bit, gradually makes others take notice. “People… will start to assume that you are competent and able… this will make you more likely to meet people, interact with them, and impress them.”

But this doesn’t just mean standing up physically. Standing up psychologically means allowing ourselves to take up space, show up to challenges, and fight voluntarily for what we want. In storytelling terms, it means being willing to accept the quest, despite the dangers. At its simplest, “To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open”.


How This Rule Impacted Me

Shortly after reading this chapter in 2019, I had a chance to put the principles into practice at work.

One day, we were particularly short on work, so the management team rounded several people up to get us involved with projects they had put on the back burner. Our group of four was tasked with rejuvenating our annual staff survey.

This was way before I started my journey to become a senior, and this might have been the catalyst that started my career progression. We got some direction from a manager – he gave us a few avenues we could explore and the budget we’d have to play with. But after that, it was up to us to plan the next survey and pitch it to management.

After a couple of hours, we were going nowhere fast. The group as a whole was just talking – sometimes about the task, but mostly not – and it was evident that if someone didn’t take charge, we’d have nothing to pitch in a couple of days.

I was umming-and-ahhing about whether I should say something. It was a daunting prospect. I certainly didn’t want to piss off my colleagues. All of them had been with the company a lot longer than I had too… did I even have the right to speak up?

Then I remembered what I’d read. I not only had the right to take my place in that group – I had a duty. If I didn’t, who else would put us back on track? They were now talking about the latest episode of Stranger Things… I was pretty sure they wouldn’t just suddenly get on with the job.

So I sat a little straighter in my chair, pulled my notebook towards me, cleared my throat and said, “So it seems like we need some sort of plan for getting this survey together, guys….”

There was a moment of silence, and I braced for the rejection I was sure was coming.

Then one of them said: “Well, what do you think we should do?”

That was it. I gave them my thoughts on the task, and they came up with more ideas. Before I knew it, we were organised – each had tasks to complete – and we rushed back to our desks to make a start.

It’s such a small moment – most people wouldn’t think that could affect anything, but to me it was HUGE.

I’d hated being called bossy as a kid. Whenever I’d given my mum an indication of what I thought we should do, that’s the response I got. “You’re so bossy”, she’d seethe.

This was new. If I spoke, people might listen. If I took my place, said what I had to say, and gave people pointers on how we could do better, it might lead to something better. It wasn’t just my right to – it was my responsibility to speak up. That was such a great thing to realise. I found it hard to accept I had the right… but to see it as a responsibility? That changed everything.

I was so excited by this. I remember raving about it in my next therapy session. As soon as my bum hit the seat, I was off, talking about this life-changing epiphany and the chapter that started it.

J smiled and said, “Have you read the other chapters yet?” He knew! That excited me more – he got it.

“No,” I said, “but I’m damn well going to!”


Final thoughts

This rule is perfectly placed at the beginning of the book. Being willing to stand up and take space in the world is the doorway to many opportunities. It is the change that begets all other growth.

While Peterson’s style is somewhat eclectic, with long asides on the importance of nature, feedback loops and the evidence for his arguments in the real world, it serves a clear purpose. The threads he weaves together aren’t always immediately apparent. But once the point hits you? Ooh boy, it hits hard.

Stand up straight raised the following questions for me. Maybe by asking these in turn, you’ll have similar reactions and can take some of the lessons into your own life too:

  • How do I see my current status in the world?
  • How has my life shaped this so far?
  • How has others’ behaviour amplified this view of myself?
  • Am I displaying submissive behaviours that make me a target?
  • How does this status serve me right now?
  • How does it hurt me?
  • How can I stand up at work? In my romantic relationships? With family or friends?
  • If I stand up, how might this help me?
  • How might this help others?

Thank you as always for reading – I’ve loved writing about this topic and will be posting my thoughts on rule 2 on Monday 4th July. If you want to buy a copy of 12 Rules for Life, you can do so here (this isn’t sponsored in any way – I just love the book…).

Until the next post!

Bronwyn @ LBT x

What did you think about the questions above? I’d love it if you dropped a comment below to let me know, or visit my contact page if you want to reach out directly!