Balancing the Needs of Self - Others
I used to think that God, Spirit, or the sacred could only be found if certain conditions were met - like lots of time, lots of space, lots of quiet. Now I know better. Now I'm a mother.
- Denise Roy
As social beings, we develop our sense of self through our interactions and connections with others. A healthy and balanced sense of self matures in a social environment where our separate identity and our membership to the family and social group are cherished and nurtured at the same time.
An imbalance in the Self-Others dimension can range from mild to severe. The mild to moderate forms manifest themselves as either 1) too great a concern for what others think, need, and want, and too little consideration and respect for one’s own needs and wants, or 2) too much preoccupation and concern for one’s own needs, wishes, and desires, and too little consideration and respect for those of others. More severe forms include extreme disregard and a tendency to do great harm to either self or others.
Early childhood experiences, role models in the family, intergenerational patterns, and cultural and gender norms all strongly influence how we balance the needs of ourselves and others in adulthood. For example, women and people from non-Western cultures tend to be more other-oriented while men and people from Western cultures tend to more self-oriented, but there is significant overlap as well.
A Self-Others imbalance in the direction of too little regard for one’s own needs often develops in a family environment where there is: too much emphasis on togetherness and the family as a group; too much emphasis on traditions and social expectations; or not enough knowledge, flexibility, or skill on how to encourage and support the unique and changing needs of a growing child.
Children who are raised in such environments may inadvertently learn that any behaviors, values, ambitions, and/or ideas that are outside of their parents’ expectations will be discouraged, will cause strong and uncomfortable emotions, and/or will lead to punishment. To avoid these scenarios, they may become afraid to take risks or make any mistakes.
These children may also reduce the inner conflicts that they experience by learning to please their caregivers and ignore the demands of their core self. The result is often low self-esteem and low self-confidence as they haven’t had much opportunity to discover their unique gifts and abilities, or develop a strong sense of self that is not shaped by the approval of others.
As adults, they may have assertiveness issues, trouble establishing self-other boundaries, and difficulty saying “no” even if their own plate is full of responsibilities. They may experience bouts of depression, anxiety, guilt, and/or resentment as they struggle to meet their own needs. Any moves towards greater separation may be associated with old feelings of disconnection, potential punishment, and emotional abandonment reminding them of the individuation struggles of their childhood or adolescence.
Other children in similar environments may remain connected to their core self and feelings, but use their anger, sometimes in destructive ways, to find out and express who they really are. They may be rebellious in adolescence and may experience intimacy blocks and anger management issues in adulthood. In both circumstances, there may be little trust that other people really care about their true self and they may experience on-going struggles and emotional conflicts in balancing their own needs and those of others.
A self-others imbalance in the direction of too little regard for the needs of others often develops in a family environment where there is: too much emphasis on individuality and separateness; too little togetherness due to parental neglect or lack of family traditions; or not enough knowledge or skill on how to discipline misbehavior and teach the social consequences of inconsiderate and self-centered behaviors.
Children who are raised in such environments may initially enjoy their freedom and “adult” life. In reality, their interactions with parents and caregivers may be limited, impoverished, and lacking in attention. Although they may have ample alone time, their sense of self may develop in a vacuum, and they may hunger for their parents’ validation or recognition of their vulnerabilities, struggles, victories, or feelings.
It may be difficult for these children when they reach adulthood to realize what kind of impact their existence and actions can have on others if they did not get any particular response from caregivers no matter what they did. To deal with the feelings of emptiness that result from growing up without a “mirror”, some may develop a false sense of self and independence based on a partial aspect of their self that stood out to others, such as their grades, achievements, maturity, special abilities, looks, etc.
As adults, they may have difficulty sharing all parts of themselves and for that reason may have difficulty relating to the needs of others that are similar to their own cut-off parts. Any moves toward greater connection with others may be automatically associated with a loss of self and a fear of enmeshment. Nevertheless, in their separateness, they may experience a great deal of loneliness and existential anxiety, and they may come across as insensitive, inconsiderate, and self-centered to others as they continuously strive and compete to ensure their survival.
In order to make adjustments in the Self-Others dimension, it is often necessary to start with an exploration of patterns and feelings that may be responsible for the imbalance. Working through “heavy” feelings often makes it easier to reconnect to a more balanced vision of Self-Others dynamics. This greater awareness along with effective communication, assertiveness, and balancing thoughts-feelings-behaviors can then be used for creating mutual fulfillment of the needs of the “small” self (the individual) as well as those of the “greater” self (family, community, nation, world, and planet).