Other people, our moral mirrors: Part 3, refining our personality

As I said in “Other People Parts 1 and 2,” when we are young children, we are concerned with our needs and preferences, so when we think of other people, we primarily ask ourselves the question “What?” “What do we want?, What kind of things do we like to do?” At around the age of 10-12, the beginning of adolescence, the primary question we ask ourselves related to other people changes from “What?” to “Who?,” as in “Who am I?” The process of this more directed and intentional identity formation through our interactions with peer groups continues into early adulthood, until our identity (who we think we are) sort of coalesces or “shrink wraps” and we become who we are “baked into our bones” for the rest of our lives (at about the age of 25-27-ish). For the rest of our lives after our mid-twenties, we will primarily ask a third question about other people, “How?” as in “How should I be?”  “How should I be with other people (and the rest of the world)?”

The nice thing about this post-identity phase of negotiating our needs and making connections with other people is that the process is no longer cluttered by trying to establish who we are, and for others who are our age or older, neither are they. So, we can accept some things about ourselves and them. We are who we are and they are who they are, more or less. That leaves needs, attitudes and behaviors as our primary areas of concern and interest when interacting with other people. In my chapters, “Identity” and “Personality,” in Firewalking on Jupiter, I make a distinction between who we think we are (identity) and how we are in the world (personality) including how we treat and interact with others. I don’t mean to suggest that personality and identity are completely separate. They are not. There is overlap between them. Think of identity as your “inner core” (that you and only you can know and experience within yourself) and personality as the “outer core” of your self that others can observe. Your identity comes through your personality like sunlight through the clouds and sky.

Others can only know our identity as experienced by ourselves when we tell them who we think we are (I see myself as “European-American,” “man,” “straight,” “curious,” “strong-willed,” “articulate,” and so on). Some of this identity stuff might be observable, but much of it is not, until we are able to say something about it. Most of what other people know about us is through our personality, how we act, the choices we make, what we do in our lives, how we express ourselves, how we respond to them and others. Of course, the same is true for what we can know about other people—we make assumptions, judgments, and decisions about other people based on their observable behaviors. When others tell us about their identities (who they think they are or how they “define themselves”), we must choose whether to believe this is an accurate description of who they are—to us, which in turn means their personalities are windows into their identities, revealing some but not all of what we might be able to know about them. 

Getting to know others and, in turn, the way others get to know us, involves quite a bit of guesswork going both ways. Other people become mirrors for us when they show us how we are in the world, their world, with them. Much of this we already know but we can still benefit from the reminders we get from others. When we show up late to a coffee date with a friend, and they somewhat nonchalantly roll their eyes, we know they are mildly irritated that this is not the first time. You hopefully apologize, and hopefully also mean it, so the next time you try that much harder not to be late—you are attempting to modify your personality. Not being punctual might be a part of how you are in the world, and irks you and them. Being inconsiderate might also be a part of who you are, and you don’t want to think this about yourself, so you keep that in mind and do your best to avoid it in the future—you want to think of yourself as a good person, so you try to act like a good person. On a positive note, let’s say you don’t show up late, and instead are on time (because in this version of you, are punctual, and considerate). In fact, in this version of you, when you arrive early, you choose a table away from the door, by the heater, because it is winter and your friend tends to get cold easily. She arrives, notes the location of the table you’ve chosen, and knowing you (your personality), thanks you, says, “you are so damned thoughtful.” This version of you also knows this to be true, and you like it, so it is reinforced by the compliment. 

The observations and responses of others to you is always an important part of knowing yourself and can be most helpful when others see things and say things about us that we might not have seen or known about ourselves (we all have blind spots), either because we don’t appreciate the impact of our decisions and behaviors, or because we don’t want to see these things about ourselves and denial works until someone decides to tell us what we refuse to tell ourselves. Other people as mirrors in this way are like looking in the mirror during a visit to the bathroom to check yourself, and then noticing you’ve got a bit of sauce on your shirt collar that you hadn’t previously noticed. Now that you’ve seen it, you find it much harder to ignore (especially because you know other people have seen it as well). We curb our behaviors to meet the expectations of others, and to keep our behavior as observed by others in line with who we think we are or at least who we wish we were. 

Both the negative and positive reactions of others to how we treat them is a continuing and crucial source of information about how our personalities match our values and the story we tell ourselves about the kind of person we are. I wish I could leave it at this and just suggest you pay attention to these things as you continue to work toward congruence between your identity and personality. Unfortunately, this would leave unmentioned an enormous problem: we cannot and should not very often take others at face value. 

Unlike the mirror in the bathroom, which will show us pretty much exactly how we look on the outside, other people are not always entirely trustworthy mirrors of how we look on the inside. A mirror has no intent, no agenda, no need they want you to meet. Others have all things, and more. Others have motives, some of which might be apparent, well known to you and to them. We all have motives, though, about which we are completely unaware— I call these “unconscious intentions.” A significant part of my work is helping clients learn about their unconscious intentions. As Freud (I think) said, therapy is about “making the unconscious conscious.” I try to help clients become aware (conscious) of their previously unconscious intentions, which form the basis for all kinds of decisions and outcomes that are not desirable. It might even be the case that 80 percent of our intentions are unknown to us at the time we act upon them. I think this is more or less true about everyone. 

In addition to this confusing fact about human nature, there is also the matter of others not wanting you to know everything there is to know about the 20 percent of their intentions which are conscious, which are known to them, in the moment they are acting upon these intentions. Just to be fair, I do the same thing, and so do you. We have to in many cases, because we are often not at all sure which of our motives would be considered appropriate to others at any given time. We are constantly “testing the waters” of likely responses to what we want, and why we act the way we do, and then looking for feedback from others to determine whether and how much we should reveal about our intentions. 

Add to this level of complication with intention and lack of clarity the whole spectrum of difficulties raised by the sloppiness of language, of perception, of interpretation, and the differences between us in our history, upbringing, class, culture, gender and role expectations, and the list of difference goes on. So, think of other people as mirrors to our inner selves, but very much incomplete, and with some level of warping, cracking, bubbling, obscurity, and other defects—only showing the version and the part of yourself they want you to see, or that they themselves can reflect back to you based on their own subjective states, including their own intentions, motives, attitudes, reasons for having the perceptions and reactions they might have.

The converse is also true. We are in a constant state of coping with our own self-deceptions—the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we are in the world with others is constantly embedded with our forms of denial. So, even when other people offer us relatively clear reflections of who we are and how our behavior is damaging or otherwise affecting important relationships in our lives, we don’t see it, precisely because we don’t want to see what they are trying to show us, or because there is something deeper within us that won’t allow us to see what someone else is trying to show us about ourselves. I just had a conversation with a client who’d ended a relationship she’d been having with someone she thought was in a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. She was stricken with grief and sadness, not only for the loss of the relationship, but also out of concern for her partner. I reminded her that a common story in Alcoholics Anonymous is that the loss of an important relationship helped them finally see the damage drinking was doing in their life and convinced them they needed to find sobriety. So, even if her partner wasn’t able to hear this from her, the fact of her departure might send her previous partner to others from whom they will be able to hear this.

Now we come to crux of the problem (as if what I just said here isn’t hugely problem enough). We need other people. We need connection, belongness and we need other people to be mirrors for us, to guide us to become better versions of ourselves when we consider their reactions to us. So far so good. But… other people are not us, and are subject to entirely different and unique moral standards and personal values, which include what they are willing to do to meet their needs, with or without regard to how we might feel about it. Other people will use us for their own purposes (just as we will use them for our own purposes). 

We hope for synergy at some level (the whole of what we do together is greater than the sum of what any of us could do alone) and often attain it. We must be judicious, though. We must stay frosty, aware, vigilant, while also inviting opportunities with and from others, so we can work with others so they and we can both obtain the benefits of those connections. We must look to others to learn about ourselves, while knowing that the reactions of other people to what we do with them are often crude, defective, warped and even entirely untrustworthy reflections of ourselves. 

This sounds terrible, doesn’t it? What a dilemma.  Oh, the constant confusion! What could possibly be the solution. There is one, it turns out, but it isn’t great. Necessary to be sure, but not great. If you’ve read my other writings, or if you have seen me in therapy more than a few times, you can probably guess my proposed solution to this great big mess of “other people” and how to benefit from them without getting yourself into all kinds of emotional and self-reflective trouble. The solution: start with yourself, not with other people. First, get to know yourself. Yes, with the help of other people, but make your own conclusions, after sifting through what you can learn from other people, keeping in mind the limitations noted above about how much or little you can trust about what other people can tell you about yourself. Spend most of your self-exploration though by a cumulative appreciation of what you learn through your experiences. Other people are secondary to this process. You are primary. Start with introspection—an ongoing process of self-exploration in a variety of ways, only a small part of which involves seeking self-knowledge through the lens of others’ perceptions of you. For an in-depth and rather comprehensive look at introspection, what it entails, ways you can do it, how it can benefit you, see my 12-part blog series on, you guessed it, “Introspection.” 

I have many stories of how people have suffered from the negative effects of peer pressure, but then benefited from the process of stepping back from other people as external mirrors, seeing the defects in those mirrors, but also seeing how those mirrors might still offer some valuable glimpse into what we are, or can be. I had been working for many years with a young man, Will, who came to me in his mid-twenties, very depressed, very negative self-worth, not quite suicidal, but wondering whether he would spend the rest of his life alone, feeling dejected, rejected, like an exile. He’d spent a good chunk of his life feeling invisible both at home and also at school. Will described his high school and college years as particularly painful. He’d gone to a small high school on the East Coast where nearly all the kids came from upper middle-class families. His family was more working class, blue-collar, but his parents had managed to move into the area the school served so Will was “lucky” to get to go to this wealthy suburban school. Same thing in college for Will. Small college, mostly wealthy kids, but Will got in with a scholarship and the help of his parents, one of whom worked there. In both high school and college, try as he might (he’d now say he tried too hard) to fit in with the other kids, he never felt like they accepted him. This was a primary cause of his depression, of his reason for coming to see me. He’d unwittingly allowed himself to see himself almost entirely through the lens of these other kids, as a person not worthy of acceptance. 

In our work in therapy, he slowly moved away from continuing to try to have connections with these kids after college. Formed a new group of friends, even got married and started a family. It wasn’t easy, and there were many bumps along this road. He did this by going back into himself, by starting with what he knew to be true of himself, by excluding from the story of himself the negative reaction of the kids at school, and devoid of those negative reactions, started to pick and choose which parts of which mirrors other people offered him seemed to be in line with what he was learning about himself. This also informed him about who he did not want in his life, and who he did. He still learns a lot from his new group of friends, from his spouse, from his family, but he doesn’t just internalize all of their reactions as appropriate reflections of who he is or how he is. He has become quite good at the balancing act of accepting some, but not all of these reflections. 

Once you have some confidence that you have begun to truly know yourself, I hope you will demand to be treated with respect (see me and accept me as I am) by others, all others, all the time (okay except maybe when a cop pulls you over, just do what your told until you can talk to your lawyer) even when you know you are not likely to get it. At this point, how others respond to you, whether respectfully or not, matters much less than your presentation to the outside world that you expect to be treated with respect. If respect requires that you are be treated as you are, as the kind of person you are, this would assume you know who you are, and how that influences the expectations hou have about how you want to be treated.

Moving past demanding to be treated with respect (and thereby reinforcing your own self-respect), the next step is looking for reciprocity. I think of reciprocity as looking for relationships in which all of those involved feel fairly comfortable that there is a sustainable and balanced level of give and take, where no one is regularly taking more than they are willing to give. I advocate respect as a minimum threshold for any relationship we have and reciprocity as a baseline standard for any kind of meaningful personal relationship you have in your life. Finally, for an aspirational goal for important relationships, I hope you will consider intersubjectivity (everyone involved in the relationship, whatever kind it is, makes a genuine effort as often as possible, to consider the ways their decisions and behaviors effect the inner experiences of anyone else in the relationship). For more on this very important subject, see my blog post, “Introspection Part 7, Intersubjectivity.” 

I suppose I consider “intersubjectivity” to be the pinnacle of moral development. I’ve said it before (in some previous blog post—yes, I have now written so many, I can’t remember which one), but it needs to be said again, “morality is about other people.” Think about it this way, when you ask yourself the question, “Am I good person?” how do you answer the question—you think about how you treat other people and how you believe they feel about the way you treat them. This is the very core of our moral reasoning and much literature about being a good person, from Plato’s many dialogues all the way to Dickens (“A Christmas Carol”). 

While we certainly should not let other people define for us how we feel about ourselves, our treatment of other people should strongly influence how we feel about ourselves as moral beings. Hopefully, the task of our lives will be the interplay, the balance, the resolution of an ongoing conflict between meeting our own needs while considering the needs of others, respecting and recognizing both simultaneously. There is meaning, purpose, love and satisfaction available in doing this in the best way we can, which continues to progress throughout our lives as we learn about ourselves, with the help of other people.

I think this may be the longest blog post I’ve written, which is why I split it into three parts. I guess it kind of had to be. I mean, trying to cover “other people” as a single topic, including how to deal with them, how to benefit from them, and how to be wary of them at the same time, is about as broad a topic as I can imagine, other than maybe the topic “your self” (which was 12 parts—Introspection blogs). The main point I wanted to make, though, is that we should view other people as offering us the opportunity to understand ourselves and improve our behaviors, decisions, and considerations by seeing ourselves through the lens of the perceptions and reactions of others. 

I think I will end this blog with a story, about myself, and about how I have used other people to become more congruent between who I think I am and how I am in the world, with others. You may know that my childhood included the unfortunate continuation of a long series of generational physical abuse, mostly handed down from father to son over many generations. That cycle stopped with me. I never hit my son. How? I tried to imagine how I looked to him. I could see in his face the apprehension related to my frustrations with him, which often enough stopped me in my tracks—prevented me from doing what my father had done to me in anger, and his father had done to him. I promised my son when he was an infant, long before he could possibly understand my words, “you will not experience what I did.” That meant I could not be to my son who my father was to me, ever. I used my son to learn how not to be my father, by seeing myself through his eyes, through his reactions, through his needs. And it worked. I can now say I am the kind of father who loves his son too much to hit him, and this is true, not only in the story I tell myself about myself, but is also true in the way I treated my son in the world—a potent example of how others can become mirrors to our inner selves and help us become all that we hope we are or can be.

Let’s recap. 

Other people help us figure out how to come to terms with the fact that they exist independently of us, that they have needs just as we do, that more often than not, they consider their own needs more important than our needs (and that’s just as it should be since we do the same thing). Other people help us figure out who we are, both with them and independent of them. Other people help us figure out how we can best be who we are among them in the world. If all of this works out, we will have been able to achieve a balance between primarily acting with self-interest, and secondarily with due regard for the needs and expectations of others. In this way, other people are not only essential to our survival—they are actually essential to our becoming the kind of morally good beings that are consistent in our decisions, behavior and deeply held personal values. Looking back at the life span, we can hope that throughout this galvanizing process of balancing our needs against and with the needs of other people, we will have achieved something we can be satisfied with, that will allow us to say to ourselves, we have become a “good person,” not because other people would agree we are a good person, but because we know it as part of our identity, our personality and our overall sense of belongingness in our dealings with other people. 

How do we know if we are a “good person?” Here’s one answer (paraphrasing from the Dalai Lama): you are a good person if you have intentionally invested in becoming closer to “a perfect understanding of universal compassion.” I think “universal compassion” must mean compassion for other people (and all living things too) and also compassion for ourselves. In the beginning of self-exploration, we should first attend to our own definition of what we are. It doesn’t end there though. If other people are our moral mirrors, we should seek their perspectives on who we are, and how we are with them, to influence our self-awareness, but without defining it. In the end, we want to land back again on ourselves, making an independent exploration of whether we are the kind of person we think we want to be, informed and influenced, yet not determined, by the feelings, opinions, perceptions, and reactions of other people.

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.