Consider an infant. Before emerging from the womb of the mother, the child and the mother are literally one. Yes, they have their own separate organs and limbs, but they live and breathe the same air, eat the same food, and watch the same movie every afternoon while bossing the father figure around. Yet, when the child is born, this connection, physical and intellectual, is far from over. Actually, the interrelationship between the child and the mother is often present for life.
But it’s not only the connection between the child and mother that stays with us. Throughout our lifetime we form all kinds of relationships that later dictate or life and progress. Robert Kegan, a famous psychologist and author of The Evolving Self, calls these subject-object relationships.
Except linked with our mother, and later with someone from the opposite sex (or the same), we are part of thousands of other relationships: our toys, friends, classmates, teachers, neighbors, fancy clothes, expensive gadgets, cars, etc.
Why does it matter?
We’re about to find out…
What Is The Subject-Object Relationship All About?
In the book The Evolving Self, Robert Kagan writes the following: “When the child is able to have his reflexes rather than be them, he stops thinking he causes the world to go dark when he closes his eyes.”
But before that to happen, before understanding that the things surrounding the infant are not part of himself, the child beliefs that he/she is one with the parent and the environment. Everything that the parent does, the child things are his deeds.
It kind of looks like this:
Having this in mind, we can define what does it means to become an adult. And to save you some scientific mumbo jumbo, I’ll compress the process of taking care of yourself into the following sentence: Growing up basically means slowly detaching yourself from your parents and their lifestyle and taking responsibility for your decisions.
Ironically, this includes attaching yourself to other things. That’s why we form friendships, we join clubs and we hang out with people who we barely know.
We fill the void that was previously occupied by our parents with other people that are closer to our age and confess similar, if not the same, interests. And not only, but we also add items in our lives that reinforce our character and help us form our desired persona (the person we want to be perceived as).
A simple example to illustrate the above is the following: If you want others to think that you’re a cool-looking guy, you’ll buy and dress in expensive clothes. Also, you’ll probably get a sports car and constantly share online your travel adventures.
Unbeknownst to the average person, the more we stuff our lives with items and the more relationships we strive to dive into, the more we lose our true identity.
Why Is Important To Understand The Subject-Object Relationship?
That’s a valid point. And yes. It is part of the journey. But more often than not, we cling so strongly into the relationships we have with others that we lose our true selves. We reach a point where we don’t feel complete, whole, when we’re alone because we’re convinced that we are the people around us. We think they define us. And when they define us, we do our best to please them. We follow them online. We waste time in chat rooms to prove our point and we fill our homes with stuff to signal wealth and to make more people like us even more. It is a vicious circle that it’s hard to get out.
If you look at the images above (the big black circles), you can spot one interesting fact: You’re never alone during your stay here (in this life I mean). You’re always involved in some kind of relationship – whether this is with your parents, friends, or later with your spouse. You hop from one pool of relationships to another until you find the one that feels closer to your persona. And if you sit down and consider all of the times you were sad and melancholic, you’ll quickly spot one thing in common: you were all alone during these times.
Either all of the pools were crowded or you were exiled from one because you were swimming without shorts (or something else not appropriate for the public eye).
So, should I have friends or should I roam the streets alone? I’m confused.
Precisely. It’s because it is confusing.
But let me elaborate.
Why You Should Strive to Be Alone Not Surrounded by Others
You play video games, right? I mean, who doesn’t. At the very least, you play the game we’re all playing – life. Yep, life is like a video game. We acquire skills, solve puzzles, slay big bad bosses by punching them in the face or by peeing in their favorite coffee mug.
And like in any game, we want to level up. But how do you move up in the world? You surely don’t have a bar above your head that tracks your experience and rewards you with skills when you hit 123,000 points.
By acquiring more stuff? By having more relationships? By earning more money?
Yes, these are the common metrics society uses to determine where you stand in the scoreboard of life. But despite what your Facebook friends count says, these metrics are as wrong as setting your default ringtone to Gangnam Style by Psy – so dated.
Here’s another high-intense, high-quality, done by master painters graph that explains how adding stuff in your life makes you feel miserable:
Not that acquiring more things and making more friendships daily is bad per se. It’s bad when these things start to feel like an inseparable part of you.
And when does that happens? When you start using sentences like:
- “I can’t live without my phone!”
- “I can’t live a day without my friends!”
- “I will die before letting someone touch my collection of spartan sandals!”
You start believing that you are your relationships and the stuff you own. Over time this belief naturally starts to instill fear in your existence. “What if I lose it all? What if my friends don’t invite me to their upcoming party? What if I lose my job?”
You’re afraid of these things because you don’t want to be alone, remember? You don’t want to be the lonely circle sitting in an empty pool with no friends inside. You want your own pool with your own toys and folks so you can all dance together and do all kinds of nasty things.
But is this really bad to want?
Robert Kagen, the person mentioned more often in this post than the word pool will tell you this: “strive to be alone.”
To reach the final level and to beat the final boss you need to detach yourself from the world and get comfortable with being alone. And to help you understand this better, I’ll quote the book: “I” no longer am my needs (no longer the imperial I); rather, I have them.”
When the stuff you own and the friends you have are just stuff and friends, and when they don’t complete you, only then you’ll have true peace of mind. Only then you’ll reach level 99 and have what it takes to tackle the obstacles that life continuously throws at you.
How Do You Master The Subject-Object Relationship And Still Don’t Feel Lonely?
Let’s pause for a moment.
What do we know so far?
- You’re hopping from one pool of relationships to another through your entire lifetime.
- You think that the things you surround yourself with are part of you.
- Public pools are lonely if there’s no public.
So, why should I want to go all by myself to a swimming pool?
It’s not that you should isolate yourself and go live somewhere in a cabin. The subject-object relationship simply explains that if you depend on your surroundings to live your life you won’t live a truly fulfilling life.
OK, how can I then become better?
By becoming independent.
To raise above the grey existence and to stop filling your mind with thoughts about whether or not others will like you, you need to feel comfortable in your own skin. To be capable of handling things all by yourself if necessary. To realize that you’re not your relationships, you simply have relationships with others.
Yep, kind of feels lonely and depressing but egoistic-like behavior will help you move ahead and finally create something worthwhile.
And how do you become independent?
It’s not an easy task. It requires all kinds of skills: determination, stamina, grit, entrepreneurship, your ability to feel comfortable while sitting alone in a room.
That’s why there aren’t many people all by themselves in libraries while in the meantime, the servers that are handling social media sites are on the point of breakdown by the crowds of people visiting.
But if you’ve reached the point where more no longer adds joy in your life, you can practice the following things. These will help you find yourself and become a more independent person:
- Arrange your life to meet your desire: Or another way of saying that you need to find a meaningful task to pursue. Once you figure out what you want to become, organize your whole life around that single task. Everything else should come secondary.
- Learn to handle tasks all by yourself: The more you ask for help, the more dependent you’ll become. Yes, a lot of times you’ll need a helping hand from a friend, and that’s totally fine. What are friends for after all? Still, if you constantly seek assistance for even the smallest tasks (changing a light bulb for instance), you’ll never learn anything new. It’s kind of like Googling stuff. If you use Google every time you can’t think of something, you’ll have a hard time recalling stuff. Or in other words, the avoidance of metalling challenging yourself will weaken you.
- Schedule “me” time: How often do you take time for yourself? Time to sit and reflect on your days? On your thoughts? Time to do things that are interesting to you without other people telling you that these things are lame?Probably not as often as you wish. But precisely by blocking hours in your day to do your own thing will make you better and help you improve. By scheduling “me” time you will: 1) have enough time to work on a project you find interesting; 2) start to feel comfortable with being alone. The more you do the second, the better you’ll feel.
If the above is not enough, let me share my short subject-object relationship story:
In the past, I was an insecure boy always looking to get approval from others. I was fat and nerdish when I was a teenager. But I was determined to change.
In my 20’s, visiting the gym helped me get into shape and reading Neil Strauss assist me with having more affairs with the opposite sex. Finally, I got the attention of the cool guys and I entered big pools full of entertainment – clubs, girls, clothes, endless parties. And while I was clearly enjoying myself on the outside, I was always lonely on the inside.
I formed relationships that were solely based on superficial things – like clothes and partying. Then, once I was no longer interested in going out every Saturday night, and I settled down with my wife, my bond with a lot of people which I previously considered besties rapidly declined and later even vanished.
While now I have fewer friends and I rarely use social media to promote my wardrobe, I feel more me than I’ve ever have been.
Deviation: The nasty side effect of too much independence is becoming uncaring prick. If you’re capable of caring for your needs without a lot of help from the people around you, you’ll start to isolate yourself from the world. Don’t go there. It might feel good at first and you’ll get a ton of work done, but it will soon become lonely and depressing. You should find a balance between dependence and independence.
Some Closing Thoughts
Blaise Pascal famously said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
And when he said it, there was still no social media, Netflix, streaming and all the other perks we currently enjoy.
Paradoxically, the more connected we are, the more goods we add in our lives that supposed to make us happier, the less joyful we feel. We go gaga when we’re left alone because we don’t know who we are.
Instead of welcoming more goods and fake relationships in your pool, create a new one built upon awareness and understanding of who you truly are.