The Paradox of Me and We

Emotional health is difficult to define.  We definitely know when there’s something wrong but feeling right seems to be more elusive.  During my training I read a lot about mental and emotional disorders, thousands of pages of problems, volumes on this type of neurosis and that kind of psychosis, but throughout my studies I struggled to find a model for emotional stability.  Was wellness merely the absence of pathology?  I started examining all of the happiest people I’d ever met and comparing them with the unhappiest people I could think of.  What made them different?  The thing that stood out to me, the distinguishing characteristic, was the quality of their relationships.  The happiest, healthiest people I know all have great friends or family that they truly enjoy spending time with.  They have stable, nurturing, caring, reciprocal, cooperative support systems.  The unhappiest people I know are shut off, socially isolated and disconnected.  They feel unable to share openly and honestly of themselves with others; their relationships are characterized by chaos, drama, conflict, and power struggles. 

The problem starts with the fact that we are all selfish by default.  I’m sure you can identify some extraordinarily egocentric people in your life, or perhaps you can even recognize some of your own selfish tendencies.  I certainly have more than my fair share.  The evidence to support the idea that humans are innately narcissistic and self-centered is compelling.  Don’t feel bad, most organisms are oriented this way; primarily for the purposes of individual survival and self-preservation.  When a baby cries, it is because they are saying, “I’m hungry,” or, “My butt itches and my diaper needs to be changed,” or, “I’m feeling lonely so pick me up and hold me.”  This egoistic, center of the universe mentality doesn’t entirely fade with age.  Attention seeking or self-gratifying behavior is just as common in the adult world.  I refer to this as the Me mindset.  Taken to the extreme, this is a fatal flaw insofar as exclusively selfish people are invariably never truly happy.  Ultimately humans are social organisms.

That is the primary dilemma of the human condition: we are innately selfish but also need secure attachments and relationships to be emotionally healthy.  For example, I very much enjoy living by myself because everything is my way, just as I like it.  I do what I want, when I want, how I want.  The problem is that living by myself starts to get awfully lonely after a while.  That is the essential Paradox of Me and We.

We are fundamentally self-centered to start but we also feel the need to belong somewhere; to be understood, accepted and appreciated.  The fastest way to drive someone insane is to put them into complete isolation.  Solitary confinement as a form of punishment in prisons has been argued by some to constitute a form of torture.  A person in a cell with a rat will almost always do better than a person in a cell alone, because at least they can hang out with the rat.

Since humans are inherently social beings, it is critically important for us to understand the interpersonal dynamics that govern any relationship.  Assorted studies demonstrate that various metrics of health correspond to the quality and scope of our relationships.  Reflecting on our own lives, we can conclude with confidence that emotional wellness goes hand in hand with making and maintaining fulfilling interpersonal connections.

The tolerability and reward of human existence depend largely on how well we can find our niche and integrate ourselves into a nurturing group or pack.  As the pandemic and quarantine has shown us, life isn’t much fun at all when we’re socially isolated for prolonged periods of time.  Sakyong Mipham wrote, “In fact, making happiness your personal goal is a direct ticket to unhappiness, because you become centered on ‘me.’  One of my favorite sayings is, ‘If you want to be miserable, think of yourself.  If you want to be happy, think of others.’  When you are self-obsessed, what makes ‘me’ happy is short lived.”  All ego-gratifying actions and motives and objects eventually wear away as novelty fades.  In sum, we always find that the temporal, shallow, one-sided, and material things that please the Me never truly fill the void inside of us.  At the end of the day, we still long for the priceless intimate connections which can only be garnered through the sharing of time and life with others.  

Just as we are inherently self-serving, we are also geared to readily develop and adopt a group-oriented frame of mind, which is also adaptive: this is the We mindset.  “Human beings are strongly dependent on social support for a sense of safety, meaning, power, and control” (Van der Kolk.  “The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma”).  We observe that humans, like other social animals, need to and like to organize in packs or teams or tribes.  This affinity toward cooperative, coordinated social structure confers multiple advantages.  Humans feel more secure with trusted companions around them.  We are capable of more as a group than as individuals.  Where teamwork exists, we gain the advantage of synergy.  Belonging to a pack also provides us with a role and purpose in life.  Strength, joy, and wisdom are shared through friends and companions.

Moreover, survival was ensured according to our ability to function as a cohesive unit.  One person hunted while the other watched the camp.  One person gathered while the other guarded the child.  There’s no doubt that humans require connection and attachment not only to stay alive but to thrive.  Selfless altruism exists not only because it feels good emotionally to support those we care about but it is also adaptive as a means of propagating the species; this is one impetus for self-sacrifice.  So what does it take to develop quality, lasting partnerships?

To begin, the smallest pack you can start with is a party of two.  If we assume the condition that both individuals necessarily have selfish needs, then the ideal model for a balanced, reciprocal partnership is that of one hand washing the other.  The alternative model of each hand washing itself clearly doesn’t work as well: just give it a try next time you’re in the bathroom.  To extend this analogy, if both parties are able to assume the We mentality and prioritize the needs of their partner ahead of their own, then both individuals will have all of their needs met without even trying.  But again, this model is built on reciprocity as a prerequisite to maintaining a healthy balance.  This applies on a larger scale as well.  Growing up playing team sports like baseball, basketball, and football, I was always taught that the needs of the team come before the needs of the individual.  This cardinal rule dictates that by sacrificing for the sake of the team, you gain the support of having your teammates beside you and behind you.

But we must also be mindful of the company we keep.  When I was younger I used to be much less discriminating about who I associated with and who I allowed to bear influence on me.  I’ve learned the hard way that maintaining relationships with unhealthy people ultimately leads to great unhappiness.  Mental illness can be highly contagious, or as some unknown sage has said “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”  Therefore, I suggest you surround yourself not only with people, but with the best people whose company you value and enjoy the most.  Invest your time in relationships with people who you respect and who respect you.

Humans have both a Me mindset and a We mindset.  Both are needed to survive and prosper.  Our emotional health depends largely on how effectively we balance this duality.  Too much Me thinking can lead to reclusiveness, social withdrawal, frigidity, emotional unavailability, or problems with intimacy and commitment.  This is the most direct path to unhappiness.  We must understand that self-absorption is antithetical to the philosophy of emotional connection with our fellow human beings and, thus, emotional well-being.  Selfishness will prevent one from finding and bonding with a healthy pack; consequently, this will lead to a state of isolation, loneliness, and if uncorrected, despair.

Too much We thinking isn’t optimal either.  It can leave one feeling stretched too thin from sacrifices, concessions, or compromises.  It’s not healthy to be the martyr who’s always “taking one for the team” if the team never takes one for you.  Again, there must be balance, and I cannot emphasize enough that reciprocity is a critical element of any healthy relationship.  

Ideally the model of one hand washing the other is wonderful, but realistically it is impossible for us to depend on our partners, family, and friends to meet all of our needs for us.  We must also be self-reliant, we must maintain a sense of independence, individuality, and identity.  In order for me to be a good teammate I must also be a strong and healthy individual.  So while we concentrate on contributing to the team, it is also important that we balance that by reserving some time to make sure we also take care of ourselves.  It is like being in a plane that has lost air pressure in the cabin, crewmembers and passengers are always instructed to affix their own oxygen masks first before attempting to help others.  A reliable caretaker must be sound in body and mind before they can ever hope to help anyone.  Slavishly sacrificing oneself without concurrently focusing on one’s own essential needs is counterproductive and not sustainable, since there will be less and less of oneself to give over time.  This course will eventually find us lacking as well.

But since we know that selfishness is the default setting we must stay mindful of the fact that it is a very thin line separating self-care from selfishness and self-indulgence.  Again, we must strike a balance.  There is no formula for this, it is a fluid and dynamic process requiring focused concentration and constant adjustment.  Discontentment and confusion flow when one paradigm is prized exclusively over the other.  We have established the critical need to satisfy both Me and We mindsets to build a healthy lifestyle.  We can’t achieve happiness without proper attention to both sides.

If we accept that we are hardwired for both selfishness and a need for attachment then we can easily understand the essence of the Paradox of Me and We.  Attempting to take care of number one without ever trying to subjugate our selfish motives for the sake of helping others is a sure fire path to misery.  The paradox also runs in the opposite direction.  As we’ve seen, we can’t take We thinking to the extreme either.  Our emotional wellness depends on the extent to which we can successfully reconcile the Paradox of Me and We.  We can never be happy as long as one of these forces dominates our lives. Brokering an accord between our dual constructs is paramount.  This is the amicable truce where both the individual’s needs and the partner’s needs are satisfied.   You need at least two healthy Mes to make a healthy We, but you also need a strong We to build a strong Me.  So which comes first, the Me or the We?  Both.  Neither.  They’re interconnected in a feedback loop that can either be emotionally positive or emotionally negative depending on our ability to modulate the balance between the two.  In the end, you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.