Feeling Our Way

Turn in the direction of the skid.

The Myth of Independence

Your concern about what others think makes you human.

“He depends too much on the opinions of others for his self-esteem.” How many times have you heard this or its equivalent? A significant number of psychotherapies take something like this as their goal; they try to promote self-esteem independent of the esteem accorded to the patient by other people. “She turns to others instead of feeling self-confident.” Same deal: the therapist wants to help her feel good about herself regardless of what other people think. (Of course, these same therapists are all-too-often quick to praise their patients, apparently unaware that they are selling dependence on the therapist as a kind of methadone treatment for the addiction to other people.)

George Eliot, in Daniel Deronda, had this to say on the subject: “independence, as we rather arbitrarily call one of the more arduous and dignified forms of our dependence.” She meant that the relational posture we call independence is not, after all, independent of other people but is instead one that requires the “independent” person to avoid appearing needy, and since we are an extremely socially needy animal, maintaining that appearance can wear you down. Independence means you can’t ask your friends if you talked too much at dinner; you can’t express feelings of being hurt when you are left out of plans; you can’t make your partner feel important. In other words, independence means you won’t get corrective feedback; you will be left out of plans; and your partner will either be someone who doesn’t feel a right to be important or who starts to look elsewhere for that feeling. That’s the arduous part. It’s “dignified,” because, as Skinner teaches us, “dignity” just means that the things that drive you are kept hidden from other people.

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Instead of trying to feel good about yourself, you should spend more time with people who feel good about you. This is not easy to do, because those people are not easy to find. One reason they are not easy to find is that many people were raised by people who don’t particularly like human beings (especially the basic human qualities of sexuality, aggression, humor, and insight), so many of the people you come into contact with won’t like you if they get a glimpse of your sexuality, aggression, humor, or insight. You imagine the best you can do is to surround yourself with people who tolerate you, and you feel bad about yourself. These people feel good about you, but they don’t really know you.

Two people I can pretty much guarantee will get you and like you are George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy. Spend time with them and their kind; find yourself in their work; experience their fondness and humor.

You can also cultivate people who will like you by liking them first, not their affability and politeness but their basic human qualities. This will change the norms of whatever group you’re in and make it more likely that your own sexuality, aggression, humor, and insight will be appreciated.

People who don’t like your basic human qualities will snap at you or otherwise disapprove of you for gravitating toward people who like you, or for expressing affection for other people’s human qualities. But you can manage such purveyors of punishment in the same way you manage people who simply don’t like you: ignore them and concentrate on better people.

Another problem is that you might confuse self-praise with feeling good about yourself, and you might confuse other people’s praise with being appreciated. This will make you pursue people who praise you rather than people who appreciate your sexuality, aggression, humor, and insight. Praise often communicates that you are such a loser that you need the praise to make you feel good. Its function is often to cultivate obedience to group norms rather than to offer social approval for the basic human qualities that groups often marginalize. Praise is like alcohol; it can take the edge off, but it’s not going to make you a better person like acceptance and appreciation can. We’ve all met people who praise themselves; they’re not much fun compared to people who appreciate themselves. If you want to foster the latter and not the former, appreciate rather than praise other people.

True self-esteem is, as Skinner said, the feeling you get when you have skills. An important set of skills involves negotiating social terrain, but if you do it at the expense of your sexuality, aggression, humor, and insight, you’re not really solving the problem. So go ahead. Let other people know you need them, and spend more time with the ones who don’t exploit that knowledge or act superior about it.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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