The number of times I’ve read that for example humility is an antidote to power, laughing an antidote to stress, or some other antidote suggestions made me wonder about antidotes.
Seen from a medical point of view, antidotes are agents that negate the effect of a poison or toxin. To get there, they either prevent the absorption of the toxin, bind and neutralize the poison, antagonize its end-organ effect or inhibit the conversion of the toxin to more toxic metabolites.
There are four basic mechanisms in antidotal therapy to put antidotes at work. These include (a) decreasing the active toxin level, (b) blocking the site of action of the toxin, (c) decreasing the toxic metabolites, and (d) counteracting the effects of the toxin.
Thinking it through, using antidotes is a much more complicated process than it might look like for the patient. For them, it can be as simple as ”take a pill and it’s done.”
And that’s how the idea of an antidote is often used in self-help or management literature.
When someone feels bad, an often-heard suggestion that follows is to “think positive”. Sometimes coming along with some explanation why the current situation is great.
While this might work in some cases, it’s not the rule. The process is more complicated. The person might just have heard some bad news and may thus still need to become aware of their emotions before letting them settle. Then they might have to get a better view of the situation before they can start to evaluate it. It’s only once they make a conscious choice of how to see the situation that the idea to look for the positive aspects of it can happen.
The suggestion of stepping into humility to avoid being corrupted by power makes a lot of sense. However, it has the drawback of establishing the idea that power as such is negative.
Power is subject to a paradox that describes how the use of power gets one into a position but can become less effective once the position is won. It reminds of the many stories where we see a rise and fall of leaders. Power is also of service and needs to be used to lead. Administering the antidote “humility” needs to become a thoughtful process allowing to transform how power is used instead of avoiding it. It’s a process in which leaders learn to use humility together with power, instead of searching for ways to use either power or humility.
It’s useful to find an antidote, but it rarely works to establish them as a contrast to whatever is considered toxic. The problem in doing so is that the antidote keeps the poison present and needs it to know what it is working against. It establishes a competition between poison and antidote. Whereas the goal in medicine is to heal when possible and otherwise to enhance well-being.
Without knowing how well-being can be created and looks like, the antidote can’t perform well. It just tries to keep the poison in check.