Could you easily name the 10 people who have been most influential in your life? The handful of people who have helped to determine who you have become? The very people with whom you have felt most vitally connected over the course of your lifetime?
It’s an interesting challenge, and one that I’ve found to be exceptionally fruitful to pursue.
Why? Because just in the last several decades, psychologists, neuroscientists, and even evolutionary biologists have begun to agree on one stunning insight: Human beings are a profoundly social and interpersonal creation. That is to say, who we do, in fact, become is largely determined by our deepest interpersonal and social connections.
Just as we can only see our own face through the reflection we see in the mirror, so, too, we can only see certain aspects of our own insides, our own psyches, our own possibilities, with the aid of another pair of eyes and another consciousness.
The origins of self-psychology and the network of connections:
One of Sigmund Freud’s most influential students caught on to this fact earlier than most. Heinz Kohut was a brilliant psychoanalyst and student of Freud—who became the director of the influential Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. He eventually split with Freud and founded his own school of psychoanalysis, which we now call Self Psychology. And one of the founding principles of Kohuts’ view is that we human beings need to create around ourselves a network of relationships that is, as he put it, “evoking, sustaining, and affirming.” It is this network of deep connection that will call us forth into the person we might aspire to become.
Kohut went on to theorize that there are a number of different kinds of relationships that we must include in this “surround.” A number of different “relational mechanisms” that must be at work in order for us to fully thrive and to become optimally functioning human beings.
In my new book, Soul Friends: The Transforming Power of Deep Human Connection, I take a deep dive into some of the interpersonal mechanisms of transformation described by Kohut and also build upon these to include some mechanisms that he hinted at but did not fully flesh out.
The six mechanisms of interpersonal connection:
There are six active mechanisms of interpersonal connection that I believe to be essential in the project of becoming what we might call “the fully alive human being.” Some of these mechanisms may sound familiar to your ears. Others not so much.
They are containment, twinship, adversity, mirroring, mystic resonance, and conscious partnership. Let’s look at each of these briefly.
Every human being must have the experience of being (and feeling) safely and securely held and soothed. Safely and securely held and soothed! Just take a minute to repeat that phrase—and notice how enticing it is to our ears.
This experience is, of course, absolutely essential in order for a baby to become a real, functioning person at all. But what we’re not so aware of is that we need this holding and soothing throughout life. We need other human beings who provide containment—either physically or psychologically. We function within the safe and supportive, nurturing and holding environment that they create—and we often do so without understanding the absolutely essential role these containers are playing for us.
This is a term coined by Kohut, and as you’ll see, it refers to an experience we have all had. This is the psychological experience we have with the people we call “best friends.” You know? Best Friends Forever? Blood Brothers? Bromances?
These are highly charged friendships of the kind we most often begin during our adolescence. Within these relationships, we discover that there is someone in the world who is interested in us. And we’re just as interested in them. We’re fascinated by them. Compelled by the experience of “getting to know” them. Indeed, we find here—often for the first time—an experience of another human being that appears to have the same insides as we do.
We discover our essential “alikeness,” and we savor it and revel in it. Why? Because this discovery gives us a deep experience of belonging. Of belonging to someone else, to the world at large. We feel more at home in the world—less incognito, or cut off. Once again, though these twinship experiences begin early in life, it turns out that we need the enlivening experience of twinship throughout our lives. And especially when we’re reinventing ourselves.
It is only during the past decade that we have discovered what Kohut discovered half a century ago: Human beings have a deep need to have an “adversarial other”! That is to say, we need another human being—and a beloved human being at that—who pushes against us. We need a “benign adversary” who opposes us in certain ways that are essential for the development of our full personhood. We might call this the noble adversary! The benign opposition this person provides forces us to unify all of the disunified shreds of our being and to rise up as one unified force in opposition. In the crucible of this adversarial relationship, then, we often become our best selves. We have an experience of being effective in the world. Of being an effective agent of change or creativity or excellence.
Consider this fascinating fact: There are parts of our own bodies that we will never, ever see with our own eyes. Throughout your entire life, you will never see the small of your back, or the back of your neck, or even (think about it) your very own face! That is to say, we will never see these parts of ourselves without a mirror!
Guess what? This is also true of our psyches, our selves, our very souls. There are aspects of ourselves that we will never see in our long lifetime without the presence of a mirror. What kind of mirror? A human mirror. Just as we can only see our own face through the reflection we see in the mirror, so, too, we can only see certain aspects of our own insides, our own psyches, our own possibilities, with the aid of another pair of eyes and another consciousness. This other pair of penetrating eyes, this other consciousness, literally calls us forth with their seeing. We come to see ourselves with the eyes with which we are seen.
5. Mystic Resonance:
Heinz Kohut only hints at this as a “mechanism” of transformation, but I believe it to be essential. Here’s how it goes: You see someone in the wide world who absolutely fascinates you—who draws your attention over and over again. This may be, by the way, a person whom you will never have the chance to meet. Or it may be a person who is long dead. But in this person’s writing, or science, or art, or poetry, or philosophy, you see something profound.
In fact, you see some gift fully fleshed out, but a gift that you sense you also have inside yourself (but only in seed form). So, in this way, two minds can resonate across the centuries! Look around you. The whole world is just one big projective test. Who is it that fascinates you in the world? Go toward that person. Get to know him or her. Devour everything they’re written or produced. At the beginning, you’ll think your quest is about them. But eventually, you will discover that it was about you all along.
6. Conscious Partnership:
We have already talked a bit about the noble adversary. Conscious partnership is its counterpart. The conscious partner is, in fact, the noble ally. Do you have a partner (this could be a wife, husband, good friend, or trusted work companion or a fellow spiritual practitioner, among others) with whom you can ally to reach your own goals, your highest aspirations? What if you had an ally in the struggle to climb that mountain you’ve got in front of you? That creative challenge, that family to raise, that problem to solve. What if you had an ally who was pledged to join forces with you in order to meet your goals and aspirations? Who pledged to hold you accountable? Who pledged to support you when you falter? Who pledged to remind you of your aspirations? And who requested the same kind of support from you? This is a conscious partnership.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Human beings should always be trying out experiments: experiments in living.” I love this sentiment and have taken it to heart.
Why not try the experiment suggested by Dr. Kohut? Create around yourself an environment of relationships that is “evoking, sustaining, and affirming.” This is, of course, the work of a lifetime. But I’m sure you can do it, and I’m sure it will bear remarkable fruit.
Remember, as William Blake reminded us: no man is an island. We are a part of one another in ways that we had never imagined. And, in fact, we are co-creators, with our friends and relations, of our selves and of the world around us.