Recently, I’ve written a lot about three aspects of “self” -- the primitive, the social, and the reasonable. Despite it's sunny appearance, our social aspect may be the most confusing, dangerous, and powerful part of our personality.
Several of my recent posts have focused on how your social aspect brings out empathy, altruism, nurturance, and love. Inversely, I've discussed how your social aspect can cause problems, leading you to repress your authentic emotional experiences so that you can better "fit in" (see: Missing Emotions, Frozen Emotions).
Humans are highly social animals. Most of us want friends, lovers, and a sense of community, and our social needs motivate us to pay careful attention to those around us. They prompt us to cooperate with others so that we can play, share, or build something together. They forge deep attachments and elicit social emotions like jealousy and insecurity to alert us to relational problems.
So how does your social aspect really operate? You can think of it like a social secretary who is very powerful and personally involved - someone who can edit your behavior, change your feelings, and set your interpersonal agendas.
Like our primitive and reasonable aspects, our social aspect has its own intentions, methods and functions.
- Intentions: Our social aspect helps us fit in by making enduring connections and allies in life.
- Methods: Our social aspect prompts us to scan the “mood” of the room looking for social cues – the expressions, body language, emotions, desires of others. We interpret these cues based on prior experience – reacting and adapting as we see fit.
- Functions: Our social aspect guides our parenting, our romantic attachments, and our friendships. It also determines our codes of conduct.
Our bodies and brains have developed a dazzling array of resources to help our social aspect. For example: mirror neurons, tending instincts, and hormones to ensure we enjoy deep attachments, and the capacity to mask our emotional reactions. We even have a whole set of social emotions (love, shame, envy, pride, etc.) that help us select, protect, and negotiate relationships, informing us on how we feel about others and how others feel about us. A lot of tools are at hand for our social aspect and each one deserves its own time and space (stay tuned!)
Despite this vast arsenal of resources, our social aspect can sometimes get us off track. Sometimes our social aspect responds to deprivation or exploitation by becoming so prominent that it overrules our other aspects. For instance, we may focus so much on understanding or accomodating someone else that we lose track of ourselves, mask our own feelings, and become emotionally confused. Battered women provide a sad and extreme example of this. Physical and psychological problems (ranging from eczema to anorexia) can result from the accommodations we make to others. This picture of Sandra Bullock is frightening and shows how skewed we can become in trying to appeal to others, how out of what our notions can be about what is healthy and attractive.
When we lose our social connections, we may become withdrawn or literally fade away. We see this in neglected babies who fail to thrive and in elderly people who give up on living after losing their spouse.
If your important attachments or social interactions aren’t as satisfying as you would like them to be, maybe it’s time to check-in with your social secretary and see how things are being managed.
- What kind of attachments do you have? Are they working for you, or against you? Are your attachments to people who encourage or stifle your growth? How is your “caring and feeding” of these attachments?
- Who do you accommodate these days? How honest can you be with your friends, parents, partner, children, or co-workers? In what ways do you accommodate others? When and why do you conceal or overlook your own emotions? Do you have hopes or dreams that you keep private for fear of ridicule or criticism? Do you hide your emotions or goals because of habits from childhood or because current relationships really “require” it?
- Are there social cues that you may routinely overlook, misunderstand or intentionally ignore? When you get disturbing reactions from others, consider what you are doing that prompts these reactions. For instance, if someone rolls their eyes, starts screaming, or walks away from you - consider what you were saying or feeling right beforehand. Think about how you might communicate your needs or ideas differently so that others will listen to you better.
Your social aspect helps you connect to those you love and/or need which can be critical to your well-being. To really advance your well-being, however, it helps to build your connections on a solid understanding of your own needs and desires combined with an awareness of the sacrifices you make to achieve the rewards of connection.