Other people, our moral mirrors: Part 1, Negotiating needs

I recently published a blog post about “Social Anxiety,” concluding that excessive (beyond normal) social anxiety has nothing to do with other people—it is created by our own way of seeing ourselves which we then project onto the way we think others see us. Today, I feel dissatisfied with rendering other people such an insignificant role in our lives. Even if it is true that we create our own issues with excessive social anxiety, surely other people do and should play some kind of important role in our lives. How could they not, when so much of our thinking, feelings and behavior are geared toward the kind of connections we have with other people. 

So, why are other people so important to us? 

Other people help us answer three fundamental questions that evolve and expand over the course of our lives: “what?,” “who?” and “how?” In early childhood, we ask, “What do I want?, “What do I need?” and “How do I meet my needs with the help of other people?” These are questions about your basic needs while also learning that other people exist as beings separate from ourselves with their own needs. Later, in puberty, adolescence and early adulthood, we ask ourselves, “Who am I?,” “Who are other people?” and “Who do other people think I am?” These are questions about your identity. After early adulthood, we spend more time asking, “How should I treat others?” “How do I relate to others?” and “How does my way of getting what I want and need from others and their responses to me reflect the way I see myself and the way they see me?” These are questions about your personality. All the while, we struggle with one complicated and essential question: “How can I meet my needs when they sometimes come at the expense of others while also being able to say to myself that I am a good person?”  In helping us answer this singularly important question, other people become mirrors to us, they become our moral mirrors.

I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. As such, I have been trained (indoctrinated?) with the assumption that working with people to help them solve their mental and emotional problems, their life problems, requires primary focus on the relationships our clients have with other people. So, I guess it comes as no surprise that this issue would bother me after writing about social anxiety and dismissing out of hand the role of other people. Let me add a modification (not a correction, though). Other people can help us with our social anxiety by supporting us in our exploration of its causes and solutions and they can also make it more difficult by thwarting our efforts or devaluing the seriousness (to us) of the issue. The reason this is an addendum and not a correction to what I said in the previous blog about social anxiety and other people is this: I stand by the proposition that other people, no matter how they respond to you, supportive or not, cannot actually solve your issues with social anxiety. Only you can. (For a detailed explanation, see my blog post on Social Anxiety if you haven’t already read it.)

Getting on then to the topic of this blog post; why are other people so important to our sense of satisfaction, well-being and self-acceptance in our lives? Like so many other large questions I try to tackle in these short blog posts, and during short therapy sessions (an hour a week more or less), I cannot hope to address the answer in anything like a comprehensive way. That’s okay. Questions matter more than answers, at least in the contexts of blog posts and therapy sessions. I decided to major in Philosophy as an undergraduate when it became clear that those folks cared much more about the questions they were asking than any answers that might come along. The questions philosophers ask often lasted centuries or eons, while the answers might last a few years or decades, until someone else came along with a different, better answer, or a refinement of the question. Science has a similar history. I generally don’t trust other people’s answers, but I often trust their questions, so philosophy fit me like an intellectual glove. I suppose I think you should feel the same about me. Consider trusting my questions, but be very wary of trusting my answers—because they are mine, not yours, and you are much more capable of coming up with your own answers more suited to you than I could ever hope to offer you. 

We are quite literally and physiology designed to care a great deal about our interactions with others. Humans succeed over very long periods when we connect to others to help us survive and get stuff done. In the brutal world of natural selection (commonly called “evolution”), those of our long line of distant ancestors who isolated and chose not to rely on others for help tended to die and didn’t have kids, or their kids died with them. Those that reached out, those that cared about staying connected, and helping others in their vicinity (tribe, family, etc.) tended to live and have kids that lived. So, after many (hundreds of?) thousands of years, the hermits have (mostly) been filtered out and the blood lines of the community-oriented, those that by now more or less instinctually prioritize their relationships with other people in their lives over almost anything else, are not only the in crowd, they are the crowd, they are all of us (with rare exception). 

We care about other people because we are designed by natural selection (we are hard-wired) to care about other people. Whether we like it or not, whether it causes us pain, struggle, excessive self-doubts, whether we love, lose, grieve, lament them, find them often annoying, or scary, energizing, draining, or inviting and relish in their company, whether we think of ourselves as extroverts or introverts, other people are important to us at a very deep level. Caring about other people, including their opinions of and reactions to us, are important to us. There’s no getting around it (well, okay, there is, but note that it can take decades of forced isolation in a small room inside a monastery to stop caring about other people). Most of us choose not to be monks. And also, even monks care about other people (just saying).

When in Rome…. (act like a Roman). Since we are hard-wired to care greatly about our connections with other people, it might be a good idea to accept this, and get the most out of it. How? Again, huge question. As with nearly everything I think about in the context of mental health, a common thread running through most of my writings and therapeutic “interventions” with clients, my answer is: “start with yourself” (and not other people). I’ll come back to this later (in the next blog post, “Other People Part 2”). For now, I am going to delve a little bit into some developmental theory related to other people.

One reason I suggest we solve our issues with other people by starting with ourselves is that we start there (with ourselves) anyway. We start as infants completely focused on ourselves, on our own needs, with no thought or comprehension of the notion of “other people” (beings separate and distinct from ourselves with their own needs, agendas, priorities, etc. that may have nothing to do with us). In what used to be technical psychological jargon, but is now (I’d say unfortunately) the common vernacular, we start our lives as total “narcissists.” Due to our vulnerability and helplessness when we come into this world, we must start out narcissistic—to survive. As babies, we cry, we scream, kick, get red in the face, if at any time our needs are not met. We don’t even care why, mostly. We have a need. We can’t meet the need. It must be met. When it is, we are satisfied, when not, we are agitated, even outrated, angry, super angry, even inconsolable! As infants, it doesn’t matter to us one whit whether anyone listening to our screams has other stuff to do. Our needs are all that matter. Other people exist to meet those needs. End of story.

Eventually, of course, our conceptions of the world begin to include thoughts of others, that they exist, that they have their own needs, that they might be preoccupied by other things and other people in their lives that have nothing or little to do with us, that we are not the center of their attention, at least not all the time, and that this even happens when we have needs, so we have to learn to wait for our needs to be met. Think of the infant moving into the toddler phase when she becomes aware that that there is a new infant (little brother) in the home, and those parent-people who used to come at my command (wailing) are now spending time at that other crib, even when I am crying. WTF?

The next phase in our lives for coming to terms with other people is when we begin to consider that other people sometimes might need something from us (starting with patience for getting our own needs met). What is super weird and troublesome is how, so often, this phase goes way, way too far. Some of us don’t continue to start with ourselves and then see what others need from us (this is good). Instead, eventually, later in childhood, or adulthood, we might start interactions with others by asking what others need from us, and then do all kinds of stuff for them, even if it is destructive to ourselves. And therein “lies the rub:” the problem(s) of other people… taking their needs or perceptions too seriously, at our own expense.  

Take a moment to pause and note something here. I have not even begun to mention how other people might want us to give them more of ourselves than is good for us, how others might encourage it, demand it, by their own intrusions, their own lack of boundaries, their own self-interest with a disproportionate lack of regard for our needs. They do. Others do. But quite often we do this to ourselves—inappropriately give way too much to others, at our own expense, all by ourselves. I have spent quite a bit of time and attention in my other writings, including the one I just did on Social Anxiety, exploring ways in which we depend too much on others for our own sense of well-being, to our detriment. Rather than go in that direction here though, I want to explore the value and benefit of other people as part of our emotional well-being.

Many years ago, when I was about nineteen or twenty years old, I wrote an essay to myself called “Reflections on Mirrors” (yes, I probably did think it was a clever title at the time, even though now it seems rather obvious). It wasn’t about physical mirrors. It was about mirrors of our identities, mirrors of ourselves, through the perceptions and reactions of others. The essay explored ways in which we can attain a heightened sense of who we are, and especially some views of the possible blind spots we carry about ourselves, the things about ourselves we might not want to see, by exploring how others perceive us and the way the feel about us. 

These many years later, I continue to think this is an important, maybe the most important, part of how we can benefit from being connected to other people (outside the very basic physical needs of someone else growing the food I need to eat and building the house I have no idea how to build, or keeping my car running, etc.). I also realize there is a delicate balance here. While I strongly advocate that we use our relationships to explore how our behavior in the world affects other people and what we can learn about ourselves from this, I also believe we must limit the importance of this so we do not allow ourselves to be trapped into creating stories about who we are based on what others think about us or expect from us (for example, see my blog posts on “Social Anxiety” and my chapters in Firewalking on Jupiter, “Selfishness and Love,” “What is Authenticity,” and “It All Comes Down to Self-respect.”). The ways we can use people as external mirrors of our inner selves, especially later in our lives is the main topic of the next blog post, “Other People Part 2.” For now, though, I will explore how this all begins. 

How can others become a mirror for us? Again, it starts with infancy. There’s some pretty strong “scientific” evidence (neuroscience stuff like brain activation imagery simultaneously occurring with observable behaviors) that a specific and very important part of our brain learns how to make faces for emotional expression by mirroring the facial expressions of our caregivers before we have learned how to utter a single word (our “pre-linguistic phase”). So, when mommy smiles, we mimic what we think we are seeing. If this makes mommy smile more, longer, wider, we know we’ve got it right. If we make some face that to us seems like it might be a smile, but mommy has a concerned look, we know we didn’t do it right, and try again, until what we do makes mommy smile, and then we do that again when we want mommy to smile. You get the point. We don’t know this is what we are doing, and neither does mommy necessarily. It is all built-in—instinctual, hard-wired into our brains. We learn from mommy, just like she’s a mirror of us, because she is, but not a physical mirror image. Mommy is a mirror of our emotional templates, because along with the thing we are doing with our face to make mommy smile, something is happening in another part of our brain (outside the mirror part) that registers a feeling of happiness, of contentment, satisfaction, accomplishment and here it is: connection (attachment) to mommy. And we want more of this (remember, we are hard-wired for this). So, the mirror becomes both a mirror of behavior (the smile on our baby face) and our feelings (the warm glow we feel inside our brains). 

As an aside, in this example I am assuming mommy (or daddy) is invested and reliable in this process, which will bode well for baby. If not, though, if mommy or daddy don’t care, or are not predictable mirrors of how we are, how we look and feel, what we can or should expect from them when we need them, we can spend a good part of our adult lives having to relearn these essential traits within ourselves. A very compelling theory that explains the importance of this process is “Attachment Theory” which I touch on in my blog post, “Equanimity.” It is a complex theory with too many details and ramifications to explain in any kind of detail here. Attachment Theory is so important though, I recommend you consider asking me about it in therapy (if you are a client) or doing some research on your own about it. I can tell you from my own experience and the experiences of many clients and friends, growing up in circumstances where there is little tether to security, reliability and good role modeling can make it very easy to go off the rails of morally acceptable behaviors (how to properly treat others when seeking our needs). Hopefully many of us will find ways to get back on track later, through the help of supportive resources along the way and learning how to become better people by populating our lives with more reliable other people.

When clients come to me seeking parenting support, I have some basic principles for them to consider. Keep in mind, these are “aspirational” principles, meaning that perfect implementation will never be possible, so just do the best you can to reach them when you can.

Principle number one: “respect for yourself and your children, always.” To the extent possible, everything you do related to your children should role model respect for yourself and your children, no matter how difficult they are being. See them for what they are: children (and also the limitations they have based on their age and development). This doesn’t mean, “always be nice.” You can be firm, even strict at times, especially when doing so is part of demanding from them that they respect you, but also respecting them as a separate person trying to figure out complicated issues (little monkeys). It is entirely possible to be both frustrated and respectful. Teaching your kids how to do this by role modeling it when they frustrate you is a vital part of their development.

Principle number two: “children do what works until it doesn’t work anymore.” This basically means, if you reward a child’s negative behavior (even unintentionally), they will continue the behavior, no matter how much you wish they’d stop. So, it is not a good idea to placate a tantrum with a cookie at Target to make it stop, or they will throw another tantrum next time you’re at the store, expecting you to cave. If you stop rewarding the behavior, and give them more appropriate alternatives, and do so consistently, even when they resist, they will eventually stop and usually follow a different and hopefully more appropriate path. Any short term gain you might achieve with rewarding negative behavior will have long term hardship waiting for you. Follow through is everything! 

Principle number three: “monkey see, monkey do” or “garbage in garbage out.” Our children watch us much more closely than we think they do. They also assume that whatever we do is acceptable, when it often is not, at least for them. I remember the first time my son swore at me—he was much younger than I ever would have expected for him to start using that kind of vulgarity. I had no one to blame except myself, since I’d obviously used the same term around him to the point that he assumed its casual use was acceptable. Crap! These three principles are designed to foster a secure, reliable, rational and respectful environment in which our children will hopefully learn from us how they can seek to have their needs met in a manner that respects boundaries and recognizes the needs of others in addition to their own needs. At the root of attachment theory are two vital words for us when we are children and for the rest of our lives: “secure base.”  Children want to know, more than anything else, that they can count on their parents to provide a consistently secure base for them.  Do this and you will have greatly increased your chances of raising a well-adjusted child into adulthood.

As we get older, and move away from infancy, this looking for mirrors moves away from our primary caregivers and becomes increasingly complicated, but remains just as important to our well-being (if not as much for our immediate survival). Part of the reason it becomes more complicated is that the group that constitutes “other people” are not like our mommy in infancy—they might (will) have other interests (their own) and will be reflecting back to us not only what they see in us, what they want for us, hoping to meet our needs to ease our distress, to soothe us, to make us smile, but also what they want for themselves, in fact mostly what they want for themselves. Unlike mommy or daddy, the kid on the playground at school might not (does not have) our best interest at heart, which is is why there can be cruel lessons for our children when they start school. This gets confusing, and stays confusing at times. 

Once we move past infancy with our primary caregiver (mother or father, or whomever), for the entire rest of our lives, we must try to interpret which part of another person’s reaction to us is an accurate reflection of something we have done and which part of their reaction is based mostly or entirely on their own differing needs and perceptions, personality and history. Is their reaction of function of us, or them? The answer usually lies somewhere in the middle. I know, that’s not very encouraging for the sake of clarity. Remember, though, that answers are less important than questions. Taking the time and effort to consciously ask that question (what part of this troubling or positive exchange is me or you), if you are able to do it in an honest and authentic way, will be a very helpful tool in every area in your life including a vital part of your self-awareness and personal growth.

The difficulty here is unavoidable because, as much as we need to steel ourselves to the always present but not always visible contrary needs of others, we also need other people to help us smooth out our rough edges, to be the guardrails against our own potential for outrageous, immoral, and destructive behaviors. We are the “apex” species on the planet (for now anyway). We got here by natural selection, which is ruthless, brutal even. We are the dominant species on the planet because we have within us, all of us, the capacity to take from our surroundings whatever is necessary to survive, which has over the course of millions of years of our development, meant the removal of an unimaginable number of other sentient (thinking and feeling) beings (animals and other human-type species). When you consider this, it is kind of amazing that we get along as well as we (mostly) do!

Phew! Diatribe. Distraction. Useful, maybe. Now I will get back to other people as part of our developmental process. After infancy, and through childhood prior to around puberty, we spend years learning how to negotiate answers to this question: “What?” “What do I want?” “What do I like?” “What do others have to offer that I want?” “What do I have to offer others that they might want?” Kids from 2 to 12 answer these questions in the way they choose to spend time with others, starting with their siblings (if they have any) to the kids at the park or daycare, to whose birthday party they want to go to, which kids they want to invite for a sleepover, which sports teams they want to join, or quit. Figuring out the answers to “what?”  is the first step in how to negotiate how we can meet our own needs while also meeting the needs of others (who will expect us to do so).  In the next blog post, “Other People, Part 2” I will explore how we move from the “What?” questions of earlier childhood to the “Who?” questions (“Who am I?” and “Who are you?”) during adolescence.

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.