Please do your own research. The information I share is only a catalyst to expanding ones confined consciousness. I have NO desire for anyone to blindly believe or agree with what I share. Seek the truth for yourself and put your own puzzle together that has been presented to you. I'm not here to teach, preach or lead, but rather assist in awakening the consciousness of the collective from its temporary dormancy.
In a time of disconnection, deep conversations can make all the difference.
David Brooks, the opinion columnist for The New York Times, wrote an article last month titled “Mental Health in the Age of the Coronavirus,” describing how the anxiety and isolation of the pandemic were impacting everyone in some way. He quoted Bonnie Badenoch, an expert in trauma, who felt one antidote to this stress was a need to have “deep reciprocal attunement (with others) that makes you feel viscerally safe,” and Martha Welch, a professor at Columbia University, who stressed the need to connect with others by having “vulnerable,” deep conversations.
Deep conversations may be an important way to connect with those we care about in these difficult times, but they are always a good idea. They are the foundation of strong intimate relationships — those “we talked all night” conversations when dating, or those seemingly rare but cherished, heartfelt times when you lowered your guard and spoke from your heart with someone you trust. They connect you to the human race, to those important in your life, in some way to yourself.
Good idea, but often easier said than done. Here are some tips of going deeper into your conversations:
Make sure it’s a good time to talk
This is a matter of logistics. It’s hard to have a deep conversation when someone is on their cell phone driving to the grocery store or when they are trying to get their three kids to bed. These times are for quick check-ins — how-you-doing, catch-you-later speed conversations. For those deeper conversations you need time; find out if the other person has some. Simple question: Is this a good time to talk?
Set the tone
Because you’re the one initiating this, you need to be the one to set the tone, the one to let the other person know that you’re interested in having more than a how-you-doing check-in. There are two ways of doing this.
One is to set the tone by talking about yourself more deeply than you usually do. You want to move beyond the standard, “I’m good,” to more honest statements about how you are really doing – I’ve been feeling down lately; I don’t know about you, but my kids are driving me crazy; I had been doing okay until Tom and I had this argument last night. This is about self-disclosure and revealing more of you and your feelings. With this introduction, you are letting the other person know what kind of conversation you want to have, what emotional level you are comfortable talking about. You can then turn the conversation towards them.
The other approach is to ask hard questions at the start: Not the “Doing okay?” but “Have you been having a hard time?” “Have you been feeling depressed or worried?” “Are your kids driving you crazy or struggling?” People only know what is safe to talk about based on what you talk about and what you ask. By drilling down into specific, more emotionally difficult conversations, you are letting the other person know that you are ready to hear what they have to say, that you are ready to go there.
Ask about details
Good therapists do this instinctively. They try to move from broad statements (“I’ve been feeling anxious“) to the details: What about, what thoughts have you had, how do you talk to yourself? You don’t need to be a therapist and try to deconstruct the other person’s psychology, but you want to ask about details (about an argument they had or about how the kids are driving them crazy) because emotions ride on content. Broad questions yield broad, bland emotions; detailed questions stir deeper, more poignant feelings. And expressing these deeper emotions and having them accepted glues people together.
Give space between emotions
And when these emotions arise, you only need to acknowledge them (“That must have been hurtful; that sounds so frustrating”) and then stop and be silent. This can be hard—our instincts are to repair, to fix, to make it better by saying the right thing right then to calm the waters. Don’t. Take a few deep breaths, allow room for you both to absorb what has been said (or for them to finish ranting or crying).
Slow down, focus on them
In the same vein, you want to slow the conversation overall. Move through the conversation like a turtle, not a jackrabbit. Keep the focus on them, give them the room and attention they need, and resist using their stories as launchpads to talk about your own. Only when they are done is it time to turn the conversation towards you.
You know if you are moving into more vulnerable and intimate territory if what you want to say makes you feel uncomfortable, you get those butterflies of anxiety. Intimacy is not about disclosing some big, dark secret, but saying anything that is, for you, difficult to say. Take that risk for yourself, and listen for it in the other person. They may say “I’ve never said this before or thought about this before,” or there may be a hesitation or an unfinished sentence and a sigh. Ask them to finish the sentence. Give them space to say what is hard to say.
Use your anxiety as a sign that you are emotionally plowing new ground. Go deeper to connect.
To protect ourselves, our families, and our communities from the devastation of the coronavirus health experts are strongly encouraging everyone to “socially distance” — to stay 6-10 feet away from other people.
I am concerned — not by the strategy but by the way people are enacting it. The few times I have ventured out to a grocery store or for a walk around my neighborhood, I’ve seen people not only keeping distant from one another but also seeming afraid. They pass each other on the street or in a store without looking at each other or exchanging greetings.
It’s as if we were each locked in a personal bubble that no one can enter. The threat of COVID-19 and the stress it induces can understandably cause individuals to become terrified and myopic — to turn inward in an attempt to stay safe. While a week of that may be more stressful to some than others, months of this type of social isolation is dangerous. Research clearly shows us that our physical and emotional health and well-being are dependent on loving relationships and physical touch. To weather this pandemic, we need one another.
Weeks ago, my colleague and friend, Roseann Adams, LCSW, recognized that the national strategy of social distancing was a double-edged sword. She identified that social distancing can be a threat to all of us as it leads some people to socially isolate potentially causing further stress and, over the long haul, impairing our bodies’ immune system. In fact, strict social distancing may set us up for other illnesses.
Within the first few days, she was encouraging people to physically distance with social connection. Differentiating physical distance from social distance acknowledges the virus’s malignant ability to be transmitted from person to person but also acknowledges that the virus has no power over our ability to support and nurture one another in this time of extraordinary threat.
Think about the power of social isolation in society. Solitary confinement is considered the worst punishment a human can receive. In fact, most civilized communities consider it a form of torture. The physical and emotional toll it takes over time includes a worsening of mental health issues, an increase in self-injurious behavior and even suicide.
Isolating individuals is perhaps the most common first step domestic abusers use to gain power and control over their victims. He or she begins to control who you can see, where you can go, what you can wear. When a person violates the rules set by the perpetrator the punishment is harsh and swift.
Social distancing, as it has been presented, can feel like that. In fact, in my work with trauma survivors during this time, I have heard people describe feeling trapped and threatened again. That is not sustainable. Becoming socially isolated may keep the majority of us alive, but not well.
By naming the national strategy as physical distancing rather than social distancing and emphasizing the need for human connection we can stay safe from the virus but also hold onto the heightened need we all have for one another right now. Each of us needs an extra dose of being seen and held within our connections during this extraordinary time. Perhaps now more than ever we must be intentional about giving our neural pathways for connection a workout.
In fact, we need to go out of our way to make eye contact, wave, move, or loudly say “hello” from behind the mask. This gives our smart vagus nerve and our mirror neurons a workout. Literally, the sound of a friendly voice and seeing the eyebrows of another person raise in greeting stimulates your social engagement system, which in turn sends a signal to your stress response system to stand down. Those moments of interaction may make the difference in the long run as to how we, as a society, survive the pandemic.
The human nervous system is amazingly adaptive. Our brains will adapt to social isolation over time, but the burden of stress the isolation causes will lead to long-term health problems. As a society we will not be well at the end of all of this — not because of COVID-19 but because of the message we take in that being with others can be dangerous.
That is why each of us must do our part to not only stay physically six feet apart and to wear masks but also to go out of our way on the street, in the grocery store, through FaceTime, Zoom, or whatever platform you can use to reach out to one another. We all must know that nurturing the relationships we have and reaching out to others who may be isolated is as essential to surviving the pandemic as physical distancing.
Let’s add another important directive to our national policy of containing the coronavirus — to reach out each day to three other people — to check in on them, simply hear their voice, or share the pain or joy of the day. This is a wider strategy to not only survive the pandemic but to keep our humanity alive.
One of the necessary ingredients in a healthy emotional relationship with another person is the ability to be present for that person. Being emotionally available means having the capacity to empathize with a person going through something difficult or challenging and providing support, encouragement, and genuine caring about their experience from a selfless and unselfish perspective.
The flip side of this is an emotionally unavailable person. This is a person that does not respond on that emotional level, often resulting in feelings of confusion, loneliness, abandonment, and even isolation even when the partner is physically present. In some cases, this emotional unavailability extends to children of the relationship, and the spouse may feel like he or she is a single parent even though the other partner is at least physically present.
Often people who are emotionally unavailable are people that seem cold and distant, or perhaps aloof and simply “above it all.” They tend to be highly focused on winning or achieving their specific goals, but they never consider how their need to win may be creating feelings of loss, lack of self-esteem, and frustration.
Learning to spot people who are emotionally unavailable is essential to avoid being drawn into a relationship with someone who does not have the capability to provide emotional support and empathy to their partner. At the same time, these people are often highly critical of themselves, and they may be perfectionists and people who have significant emotional trauma and relationship issues in their lives. In some cases, adults who are emotionally unavailable may have had traumatic childhoods or grown up in families where they were emotionally abused or where the display of emotions was seen as negative or as a challenge to family dynamics.
Signs of Emotional Unavailability in Adults
The following are classic signs of the inability to connect with people on an emotional level:
Extremely analytical – people that focus on the facts or the analysis of an issue but never talk about feelings or express how they feel are often emotionally unavailable.
Avoid affection and emotional situations – people who are not comfortable showing their emotions strive to avoid any type of emotional situation. They may not want to be present for goodbyes, and they may create conflict to “blow up” a potentially emotional discussion, or they may simply not respond to an attempt to show appreciation, recognition, or love.
Limit friends and interactions – emotionally unavailable people tend to relate well to work colleagues in work settings, but they tend to avoid social situations where there is more likelihood of emotions and interpersonal relationships being the focus of the conversation.
They dismiss or discourage your emotional states or make fun of your emotional responses – this is common, and making a joke or telling a partner not to feel emotional about a topic is a common mechanism for the emotionally unavailable to try to control the discussion.
Emotionally unavailable people can change, but they have to recognize the problem and learn to be comfortable with their own emotions before they can be present for their partner.
Being in love may be one of the most intense and impactful experiences. People in love admit to spending about 85 percent of their time thinking about the object of their affection1. This is, of course, no surprise, as intense romantic love evokes brain regions associated with the reward center, specifically dopamine (the pleasure chemical), and increases feelings of motivation, ecstasy, and craving2,3.
As a result of these powerful, provoking emotions, love is portrayed in the media perhaps more than any other subject area, with 73 percent of songs referring to love4 compared to only 37 percent of songs referring to sexual intercourse5, not to mention all of the movies and other forms of media about the subject of love.
For some, they may only thrive on the momentary buzz of entering a relationship, with no long-term commitment in mind—a serial dater, perhaps. However, many others, depending on what they value, want to develop a deeply connected relationship with another human being. For those who seek the latter, some lucky ones may find a happy ever after, whilst for others, it may be more difficult.
Indeed, many people often find this is not always possible and find themselves getting caught in negative cycles, which cause a disconnection and can lead to resentment and the end of that relation. The statistics show that about half of first marriages end in divorce, and second marriages are even more likely to end6. Though there are many circumstances for relationship breakups and falling out of love, such as financial problems, affairs, lives and interests diverging in different directions, etc., some problems can stem from personal problems with their selves, sometimes in the form of classified personality disorders.
Problems with selves may be rooted in painful or abusive histories, which, if unchecked, can affect the way you relate to yourself and the person you love. Borderline personality disorder relates to a history of insecure disorganized attachment7, often characterized by emotional instability, impulsive behavior, and intense, unstable relationships.
Other personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder, which is characterized by excessive interest with oneself, selfishness, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy, can greatly affect the quality of a relationship. Many of us may have heard of the “gaslighter” who may lie, project, or align people against their partner in a relationship in order to maintain control. Of course, not all relationships are so toxic; however, toxic relationships usually have one thing in common—issues with the self.
In supporting yourself, one way is to engage in self-compassion exercises. Loving yourself should not be in a narcissistic way, but instead in a deeply connected, non-judgmental, and compassionate way. Self-compassion involves self-kindness instead of self-judgment, common humanity and belonging instead of isolation, and mindfulness instead of over-identification8. A balanced, mindful response to internal suffering is important, where one does not try to suppress difficult emotions, nor does one ruminate on these feelings9.
The internal struggle with difficult thoughts and emotions (i.e., issues with the self) may be one of the reasons for the toxicity in a relationship, a reflecting outward of the inward turbulence. A toxic relationship may be misleading, as there can be passion, but without any of the truly loving, caring, or connected aspects, which may be important for longer-term success.
These relationships often involve the highlighting of deficits of the other in hurtful ways and may be an outward projection of insecurity and emotional instability of the self. Self-compassion can facilitate a feeling of connection to others when things go wrong and in times of failure and difficulty10. It can help you balance awareness of painful experiences, acknowledging them in the present moment, and not dramatically running away from the storyline of one’s problems in life.
For these reasons, developing a healthy relationship with yourself may be the key to developing a healthy relationship with another. Studies have demonstrated that people who are more self-compassionate have more positive and higher-quality relationships than those who do not11. Perhaps, therefore, the most important relationship you have really is with yourself.
Problems such as narcissism can be internally characterized by closing off from vulnerability, which can be harmful. In contrast to this, a connection with self in a compassionate, accepting way, where one is open to vulnerabilities such as painful memories and experiences, may facilitate a deeper openness and connection with others. It’s this connection that may then ultimately allow for longer, more satisfying, and truly loving relationships. So, learning to self-care through self-compassion, rather than self-soothe through egotistical and low self-esteem, romantic game-playing will help you truly love another.
1. Fisher, Xu, X., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2016). Intense, passionate, romantic love: a natural addiction? How the fields that investigate romance and substance abuse can inform each other. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 687.
2. Fisher. (2016). Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray (Completely Revised and Updated with a New Introduction): WW Norton & Company.
3. Xu, X., Wang, J., Aron, A., Lei, W., Westmaas, J. L., & Weng, X. (2012). Intense passionate love attenuates cigarette cue-reactivity in nicotine-deprived smokers: An fMRI study. PloS one, 7(7), e42235.
If you listen carefully, most conversations are one-sided.
Someone asks the questions. (A)
Someone talks a lot. (B)
And when the person who talks a lot does direct the conversation back at the other person, they do not ask them questions. Instead, they say statements.
A: “How are things going?”
B: “Honestly, really good. So much is going well for me! I just moved into a new place. I just started a new job. It’s all fantastic.”
A: “That’s great! Are you adjusting well?”
B: “Oh absolutely. By the way these tacos are great.”
A: “Yup, I love tacos.”
B: “No, they’re like really good. You know I’ve always been a fan of tacos. Tacos are the best.”
A: “I agree.”
B: “Yeah, if I could, I would always eat tacos.”
If you read the above, you have to listen closely to see how person A might feel, at some point in this conversation, unheard. Person B does not ask them directly, “What’s going on with you?” They just keep talking (usually about themselves) and saying things at the other person — instead of allowing them the opportunity to talk about themselves too.
This is one of the most common mistakes I have witnessed in human interactions, period.
This dynamic ruins relationships.
It causes unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding.
It stirs resentment.
Everyone wants to be able to share themselves — and if no one ever asks, they turn bitter.
Which makes them less likely to listen to someone else and ask them questions — and then that person turns bitter, etc.
It’s so simple.
When you’re with someone, ask them questions and actually listen.
What are the fundamental motivations that animate our lives, our deepest needs, the ultimate goals compelling our pursuits and desires? This is an old question in psychology, occasioning much debate.
In thinking about this question, it is useful to borrow a notion from evolutionary science, which distinguishes between proximal and ultimate causes. Proximal causes motivate behavior in the here and now. Ultimate causes are the underlying foundational forces that shape and direct our here-and-now attentions. So the proximal reason you find a woman attractive is her lush hair and smooth skin. But why are lush hair and smooth skin attractive? That’s an ultimate cause question. Proximally, you are excited by the newness of your purchase. But why is “new” exciting, ultimately?
Proximal causes are usually means to ultimate cause ends. In the examples above, lush hair and soft skin are a proxy for youth, which is a proxy for fertility, a winner in the evolutionary gene-spreading game. Novelty excites because new is change, and change requires adaptation if one wishes to survive and thrive; both danger (a predator looking to eat us up) and promise (prey we can catch and eat) lie in that which is new in the environment. Therefore tending to novelty is a winning strategy in the evolutionary game.
As you might have noticed, life is complicated. Thus, any outcome may have multiple, layered proximal and ultimate causes. The proximal causes of the sailboat gliding over the water include the fact that the wind catches the sail, and also that the sailor is proficient, and also that the boom is sturdy, etc. The ultimate causes may include the survival advantage conferred by our ability to get places fast over water, the benefits of territorial control and access to resources, our desire for an increased sense of security achieved through making something unknown known, etc.
Clearly, some ultimate motives are biological. We are biological systems and everything that is possible to us has to be biologically possible. Evolutionary psychology posits the survival and reproductive functions as the ultimate biological motivations. Reverse-engineer anything we do and you’ll find these motives at play underneath. There is truth and elegance to this claim. It’s quite easy to see how underneath all our varied efforts to distinguish ourselves, achieve, accrue fame or amass fortune, lie an effort to improve our access to resources, including protective ones (i.e. survive) and attract the attentions of quality mates (i.e. reproduce).
But human beings are not just the sum of their biological processes and structures. At least not in any way that’s interesting. We also have a characteristic human psychology, which is neither synonymous with nor reducible to biology. Reducing human behavior and experience to their biological functions provides an impoverished, not to say distorted, picture of humanity. It turns out that psychological motivations—perhaps in part because they are born of (and map onto) biological imperatives—are as enduring and fundamental (ultimate) as biological ones, at least insofar as one wants to understand people’s behavior and lived experience.
To wit, a thought experiment: Let’s say we brought a biblical figure—say, Moses—back to life right now. Despite easily passing for a Brooklyn hipster—sandals, beard and all, Moses would nevertheless be utterly perplexed at the sight of your iPhone. Yet he’d be quite familiar with your emotional and relational (that is, psychological) issues—family petulance, greed and lust, your conflict with your boss and rage at social injustice, etc. In other words, while our technology has changed dramatically from biblical times, our psychology has remained more or less the same. The proximal means by which we communicate have changed much; the ultimate need to communicate, not at all.
In psychology’s early days, human motivation was often attributed to inborn ‘instincts’—innate, fixed patterns of behavior that emerge fully formed in response to certain stimuli. Early theorists such as William James posited lists of human instincts including shyness, love, play, shame, anger, fear, etc. “Instinct leads,” said William James, “intelligence does but follow.” One problem with instinct theories is that they describe rather than explain motivation, and are tautological by nature (Q: Why am I doing x? A: because you have x instinct. Q: How do you know I have x instinct? A: Because you are doing x).
Given their limitations in advancing understanding and prediction, it’s no wonder that instinct theories soon gave way to drive theories. A drive can be defined as an excitatory state produced by an inner disturbance. In other words, when certain biological conditions are unmet (say, I haven’t eaten in a while), the body produces discomfort, which we are then motivated to eliminate (in this case, by eating).
Drive theories owed a debt to the work of Claude Bernard, a 19th century French physiologist who is considered the father of modern experimental physiology. Bernard discovered one of the fundamental principles of organic life, the concept of “homeostasis”—controlled stability of the internal milieu in the face of changing external conditions (think for example: body temperature), which he reasoned was, “the condition for free life.”
Freud, who developed the first influential drive theory in psychology, saw drives as internal forces that compel a movement toward restoring homeostasis. Freud believed that human behavior was motivated by two fundamental biologically-based drives, sex and aggression. These drives, appearing to us as “the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism” constitute, “the whole flux of our mental life and everything that finds expression in our thoughts.”
Clark Hull, an influential early 20th century American drive theorist, said it thus: “When survival is in jeopardy, the organism is in a state of need (when the biological requirements for survival are not being met) so the organism behaves in a fashion to reduce that need.” Hull believed that humans possessed four primary drives: hunger, thirst, sex and pain avoidance.
But how does one find the behaviors that serve to effectively reduce the drive? Well, mostly we do so by trial and error, reward and punishment. In other words, we learn from experience how to respond effectively to disruptions in homeostasis.
This idea had by the 1950s worked its way into the behaviorist theory of BF Skinner, according to which we select from a repertoire of behaviors those that produce reinforcements. Skinner, however, had little patience for the notion of internal motivation. While recognizing the existence of inner drives, Skinner nevertheless argued that they did not explain behavior. Rather, the causes of behaviors earlier theorists had attributed to internal drives were actually environmental events, like deprivation and aversive stimulation, not internal states such as thirst or anger.
Drives, as de facto effects of deprivation and aversive conditions, are linked to the probability of certain behaviors, but in a corollary, not causal, manner. For Skinner, internal states like emotion and intention do exist within the brain, but as contingencies, not behavioral causes.
Either way, both classic ‘push’ drive theories and the newer ‘pull’ behaviorist ideas, while useful in their focus on the interplay between our biological make up and the environment, proved wanting as explanations of complex human behavior. For example, why do some behaviors continue long after the biological needs from which they ostensibly emerged are satisfied? People, after all, eat when they are not hungry, and well past the point of satiation. Second, what’s reinforcing, or tension reducing, about a prisoner refusing to divulge secrets under conditions of continued torture?
It turns out that in terms of the human experience, internal psychological processes matter greatly. If you run over me with your car, I’d be interested to know whether you did so intentionally. The court would want to know, as would your friends, and mine, and God at the pearly gates.
The 1960’s, the emergence of the civil rights and human potential movements—and with them the humanist school in psychology—saw psychology’s attentions shift from a focus on drives to a consideration of psychological needs, defined as psychological conditions in which something is required or wanted.
“Lists of drives will get us nowhere” wrote the prominent humanist theorist Abraham Maslow, opting instead to create his famous hierarchy of needs, in which biological needs must be adequately satisfied before we may pursue the higher, more delicate self-actualization needs. In Maslow’s words: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.”
The humanistic emphasis on identifying those parts of human experience that made us unique has also provided fertile grounds for the contemplation of the idea of meaning. The psychologist Victor Frankl famously wrote that searching for meaning is ‘‘the primary motivational force in man.” Existentialist psychologists such as Rollo May in particular spoke of the motivation to find meaning, to make sense of one’s existence, as a defining feature of humanity, separating it from all other living creatures. We are aware that we will die, and we are also aware that we are not dead now. So there is a space for us to be—but how? And what? “He who has a why to live for,” said Nietzsche, “can bear almost any how.” Indeed, research has shown that a sense of meaning predicts health and wellbeing.
The interest in needs and goals has thus replaced the interest in instincts and drives, and, with psychology’s more recent turn toward the study of cognition, the discussion of what needs could be considered fundamental, or ‘ultimate,’ has expanded.
For example, the late Harvard psychologist David McClelland has proposed three such fundamental motivators: the need for achievement (N-Ach) is the extent to which an individual desires to perform difficult and challenging tasks successfully; the need for affiliation, (N-Affil) is the desire for harmonious relationships with other people; the need for power (N-Pow) is a desire for authority, to be in charge.
Looking to integrate research findings on the dual roles of both extrinsic (pull) and intrinsic (push) motivations in shaping behavior, the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan proposed the influential self-determination theory, according to which human beings are motivated by three basic, innate goals: competence, affiliation, and autonomy. Competence refers to a desire to control outcome, gain mastery, and become skilled. Affiliation refers to the desire to “interact with, be connected to, and experience caring for other people.” Autonomy concerns the urge to be causal agents and to act in harmony with our integrated self.
The diverse work on motivation is not easy to summarize. Yet two threads appear (to me) to weave vividly through all or most of the theorizing in this area.
One is the affiliation need, the need to belong. Human beings can survive and thrive only in well-organized groups, and so our search for belonging is foundational, and urgent. Many psychological theories (beyond those mentioned above) allude to this notion in varying forms.
For example, Freud’s brilliant contemporary Alfred Adler argued that our “social interest”—an orientation to live cooperatively with others, value the common good, show interest in the welfare of humankind, and empathically identify with others—was an innate and foundational component of our psychic architecture. A failure on the part of parents and schools to protect and nurture children’s innate social interest was, according to Adler, the source of much individual suffering and social turmoil.
John Bowlby’s influential attachment theory emphasizes the importance of healthy caregiver-child bonds—the so-called ‘secure attachment’—for later emotional health and adaptation. The seminal Russian developmental theorist Lev Vygotsky has written about how development entails a process of “apprenticeship in culture,” where more expert and competent individuals teach children through assisted (‘scaffolded’) interactions how to achieve social competence. More recently, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, in arguing for the existence of a universal ‘need to belong,’ summarized their case thusly:
“People form social attachments readily under most conditions and resist the dissolution of existing bonds. Belongingness appears to have multiple and strong effects on emotional patterns and on cognitive processes. Lack of attachments is linked to a variety of ill effects on health, adjustment, and well-being…Existing evidence supports the hypothesis that the need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation.”
A second dominant thread weaving through psychological theorizing and research on motivation is that individual human beings move invariably to develop a unique and coherent identity, a psychological sense of self to match the embodied physical self. In fact, the need to belong implicitly presupposes the existence of someone to do the belonging. When the Beatles sang, “all you need is love” they were correct insofar as implying that all love also needs a ‘you.’
The American psychologist Gordon Allport argued that it is this innate sense of individual coherence, agency, and continuity that allows us to wake up every morning with the deep certainty that we are the same person who went to sleep last night.
Deci and Ryan put it thusly: “all individuals have natural, innate, and constructive tendencies to develop an ever more elaborated and unified sense of self. That is, we assume people have a primary propensity to forge interconnections among aspects of their own psyches as well as with other individuals and groups in their social worlds.”
It is true that the concept of self emerges in a social context. We define ourselves vis-a-vis other selves. Cultural norms and traditions heavily influence the kind of selves we construct. Yet it is also incontrovertibly true that there is a universal quality to the notion of self. Selfhood is recognized everywhere—everybody has a name—and many of its characteristics are common across cultures.
The individual body provides a universal framework. We are all embodied, and conscious of that fact. People everywhere develop an awareness of themselves as physically distinct and separable from others. We also share an awareness of our internal activity. “A purely disembodied human emotion,” wrote William James, “is a nonentity.”
We are aware of our stream of consciousness as manifested in thoughts and feelings and its common disruptions, as experienced in sleep and intoxication, for example. We are aware of the existence of a private realm of self, unknown to others.
My (invariably) astute readers will note readily that these two motivations, while entwined, are also in some fundamental way at odds with each other. For one, group functioning requires cohesion and conformity, which in turn involve a reduction in personal individual autonomy. Likewise, the need to define and express a coherent and unique self in part entails differentiating from the crowd in some meaningful way. Individual caprice is often at odds with communal goals and standards. As Rollo May has written: “Every human being must have a point at which he stands against the culture, where he says, this is me and the damned world can go to hell.”
The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson has alluded to this inherent tension in his developmental theory. According to Erikson, we develop in a sequence of stages, each involving a distinctive psychosocial ‘crisis,’ the resolution of which may have a positive or negative outcome for personality development. Erikson saw these crises as “psycho-social” in that they pit the individual psychological needs against the needs of society.
Yet I would argue that it is quite heuristically useful, and justified by much evidence, to think about human motivation on the psychological plain as the interplay of these two fundamental motivations: the ‘need to belong,’ to feel embraced and connected with other humans, loved, protected, accepted and understood, a member of a tribe; and the ‘need to be’—to define and assert a coherent, unique self. There is, it seems to me, a strong case to be made that all our consequential psychological machinations can be traced back to these two motives, our deepest needs: to belong somewhere and to be someone.
If we wish to go further with this model, we may imagine these two motives as dynamic continua: separation-connectedness, marking the ‘need to belong,’ and dependence-autonomy, representing the ‘need to be.’ Placed in a 2×2 table of the kind psychologists love, these categories yield four possible combinations:
Dependence + Connectedness, a state of affairs we may label ‘Infancy’
Dependence + Separation, a state of affairs we may label ‘Anxiety’
Autonomy + Separation, which we may label ‘Identity’
Autonomy + Connectedness—let’s call this state ‘Intimacy’
Connectedness Infancy Intimacy
These combinations describe, I think, with some elegance, the developmental path toward personality maturity, the journey of becoming.
The infant in the first years of life is both dependent entirely on others for survival and connected, as she posses no clear awareness of a separate self. As the child matures, she acquires an awareness of self that is distinct from others, yet remains thoroughly dependent on them, unfit for autonomous existence. Through adolescence and into young adulthood, one may reach autonomy (psychological, legal, geographical, financial, etc.). Yet, having left childhood and its ways of affiliating behind, must engage the search for adult connectivity—the partner(s), friends, and communal life that are chosen rather than assigned by birth. Later in adulthood, if all works well, one may get to be both genuinely connected (belonging somewhere) and confidently autonomous (being someone).