Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How to Pull Good Things Out of Others

How becoming our best selves depends on the selves we bring out of others.

Photo: asenat29

Who we are turns out to be largely a function of who we're with. Have you ever noticed, for example, how you feel and behave one way with your family and another with your friends—and yet another with your co-workers and boss? We may all be multiple selves, but just which self we are at any one moment isn't as much up to us as it is to the people around us.

Which, of course, is no more than a fancy way of saying different people pull different things out of us. But as most of us spend most of our time in the company of others, what others pull out of us becomes what we spend most of our time feeling. In other words, who we are comes down to more than just nature vs. nurture: just who's doing the nurturing is what largely determines which of our multiple selves we spend most of our time being.

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Not that who we want to be is of no consequence. But when it's at odds with what another person's presence pushes us to be, who we want to be often loses. How often, for example, do you want to be loving and kind toward your spouse only to be left feeling cold and bitter by his lack of gratitude? Or fun-loving and silly with your children only to be left irritated and mean-spirited by their temper tantrums?

We all exert far more of an influence on who the people around us are than we perhaps realize—not by our conscious intention, but by who we are ourselves. And as who we are ourselves is just as profoundly influenced by the people around us, the people we spend our time being is also influenced by the people we pull out of others. In one sense then, when two or more people interact, they're creating a third person: the person they are together, a melding of the recursive influence each of the two has upon the other.

Not that this third person is by any means fixed either. When two people first meet, they bring to their first meeting the selves they usually do in whatever particular context they're meeting. Thus, an employer and an employee bring their "visionary leader" and "good worker" selves, and a man and a woman bring their "first date" selves, and so on. But relationships constantly evolve. Thus, an employer may soon find her controlling self interacting with her employee's dissatisfied self. Or a man his interested self pursuing a woman's demure self (or, perhaps, equally interested self). Much, much later on, then, a man may bring his distant self and a woman her frigid self.

The people we pull out of others and the people they pull out of us change over time. All that large change requires is a subtle change in one "action-reaction" couplet (perhaps he stops telling her he loves her and she begins to think he doesn't) to initiate others. And then, months or years later, the people we pull out of others and who others pull out of us have become completely different from what they were initially—and often not who we want them to be at all.

All relationships, then, are partnerships whether acknowledged or not. As the people with whom we surround ourselves have more control over what we feel than we often do ourselves, and we have more control over what they feel than they often do themselves, if we want to enjoy who they pull out of us, we must take responsibility for who we pull out of them.

Now, certainly, we can't completely control what selves we pull out of others. We can behave one way toward two different people and get two entirely different reactions. But what we can exert over other people is good influence.

So if we want to be our best selves, the selves we ourselves like the most, we should first aim to pull the best selves we can out of the people around us. If we want to be warm toward others, we should figure out what others do to trigger our warmth and trigger them to trigger it. If we want to be courageous, we should figure out what other people do to make us feel brave and trigger them to trigger that.

We may all be responsible for what we do, but we're not responsible for what we feel—at least, not entirely. But as what we do is overwhelmingly influenced by what we feel, we need to find ways to trigger others around us to trigger in us the feelings that serve us well. And while we frequently wield our power to induce feelings in others selfishly and irresponsibly, often leading to anger, strife, and fractured relationships, at other times we do just the opposite. At other times we really do pull out of others their best selves. And at times like those, we may find ourselves feeling the same thing Helen Hunt's character felt in the movie As Good As It Gets when Jack Nicholson's character told her: "You make me want to be a better man."

 

Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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