I’d like to start with a bit of honesty – there is no chronological order to my posts. I am truly owning the flexibility and “selfish” drive of a blog for this reason. I am always going to share what I write, but I can determine ‘the when’. I have a lot of cool things I am working on, and they will come to you eventually, but I wanted to let you know this is real-time. This will be posted during week five of spinal-drama. Things are ‘fine’ all around, but fine like standing at the edge of an ocean during a moderate hurricane is ‘fine’. A lot of side drama and low spinning swords, but we are here, stronger together and working on lots of big ideas.
These five weeks have made me confront not only fears and new potential realities, but mostly how I interact with people and the sum of my relationships. This is obviously a big thought and I do not want to lose, offend, misguide or bore anyone so I am going to infuse some dusty tools to structure this post so that you can see this is a query into relationships, from my lens only. We are going to look at some sociological theories that discuss the evolution of the concept of social contract – a guide to interacting with our world that has innately been accepted by most of us. You may be giving your screen a skeptical side eye, questioning where we’re going and if you want to come with. Let me assure you that by starting here things will make more sense. By establishing my observation (my user guide) of social contracts we can explore how, by extension our sense of self evolves from our interpretation of our social interaction, and further how ‘the looking-glass self’ works with or against us in our search for stable footing.
These theories have impacted my approach to self identification in a very healthy way. I was able to sort through a messy social life during university because I studied sociology. Now, almost ten years after graduating UofT with my double B.A in Sociology and Sexual Diversity Studies, I am thinking about these theories again during a calmer but still somewhat messy transition phase.
Social Contract Theory
I was drawn to sociology because of a class I took during my time at Ryerson. This class looked only at how pop culture subconsciously influences us.
Quick back story, my mother took our television away when I was six or so. This was because my sister and I would start world wars over the remote. My mother noticed our family was divided because of the TV schedule; I was alone in the basement until my shows were over, then my sister. When we were in bed, my parents spent their time divided, because of the TV. So, this concept of pop culture (TV media specifically) shaping us was very foreign to me. Remember, I did not grow up wanting to scream “D’OH!” or know who Bart was – Sesame Street was my last reference. So, the simplicity in the vastness of this discipline appealed to every fibre of my being. I left Ryerson and moved on to UofT, where I was handed the privilege of studying how our culture impacts our society and our society our mores; how an individual can impact socio-political trajectory, and how bigger institutions work to mould individuals. But you must understand, the fact that our only focus was the functional operation of the interaction of people with each other and the world at large was incredible to me. No psychology, no biology, physics, or Latin – just the observations of how individuals’ function in society and how society, in turn, affects that functionality.
Socrates and Plato were two of the first to begin thinking of how and why we interact with society and culture in the way we do. Hobbes and Locke came along, developing these theories and speak to the socio-political evolution of our society. Personally, Rousseau’s naturalized versus normalized (idealized theory) account seems to allow a forgiveness for our current state, while remaining critical. As you will see, his simple foundation allows my brain to spider into the crevices we need to go. The idealized theory acknowledges that:
“Man began in a State of Nature and over time ‘progressed’ into civil society … the State of Nature was a peaceful and quixotic time. People lived solitary, uncomplicated lives. Their few needs were easily satisfied by nature. Because of the abundance of nature and the small size of the population, competition was non-existent … [with no] reason for conflict or fear. Moreover, these simple, morally pure persons were naturally endowed with the capacity for pity, and therefore were not inclined to bring harm to one another.”Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Rousseau goes on to explain that as we domesticated, everything changed and had to become stratified in order to ‘work’. It was our need to segregate labour, privilege and status that resulted in:
“discoveries and inventions [that] made life easier, giving rise to leisure time. Such leisure time inevitably led people to make comparisons between themselves and others, resulting in public values, leading to shame and envy, pride and contempt. Most importantly however … was the invention of private property, which constituted the pivotal moment in humanity’s evolution out of a simple, pure state into one characterized by greed, competition, vanity, inequality, and vice”Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Many of you probably accept this as a potentially valid concept. We can acknowledge how those who have more than us make us feel lesser. (broad statement) We do not consider those with less than us our responsibility because we are ‘less than’ someone else too. If this is the case, then our scope and commitment to our social contract begins from a point determined by where we start in life, clarifying why some are more motivated than others.
For clarity, I acknowledge Rousseau is talking about socio-economic dis/advantages and how society has changed as a result of civilization and the industrial revolution. I would just like you to also consider whether we can adopt this theory to consider mental, physical and emotional status as well? Does a subconscious struggle develop because we know there is a way that is peaceful, quixotic, uncomplicated? How does where we begin impact our starting capacity for anything? Consider how these stratifications impact the development of your social contract capacity. We are not ignorant to where we start – I, by all accounts, should have a solid, good paying job and be in a middle to upper class bracket if my parents are any indication. My sister succeeded, and arguably, we have very similar capacities. Therefore, we can not attribute our success or failure, inclusion or exclusion on macro-concepts alone. Before we delve into the ‘individual’ concepts, I would like to give you my idea of what our (macro) social contract is:
The world can be difficult to navigate when you are alone or without guidance from someone with knowledge. By adhering to commonly practised etiquette (good manners, not lying or cheating) and following a (relatively?) innate moral code (don’t kill, maim, violate trust, mislead others for gain) then you should by all accounts receive the breadth of society’s knowledge, support and guidance.
I believe in the Golden Rule. I believe that if everyone followed it, truly treating others as they wished they were treated, then we should all get along. I suppose I have a false belief that people would, in this world, be their actual ‘best self’ and not have an ego – though I am not slagging egos per se, because mine’s quite healthy. I mean the ego that puts ‘you first and nothing else … just in case” – that ego I do not have.
Before we move on, consider Rousseau’s consideration of freedom in our social contract:
“Humans are essentially free, and were free in the State of Nature, but the ‘progress’ of civilization has substituted subservience to others for that freedom, through dependence, economic and social inequalities, and the extent to which we judge ourselves through comparisons with others.”Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Social Theories of Understanding Self
Freud explored the sexual self, ego/id and all those fun mental hang ups we all wonder if we have. While I love him dearly, he is the psychologist and so we are going to look instead at George Herbert Mead. Symbolic Interactionism (foundations in Weber’s theories) states that people build and develop a symbolic meaning about something, and that meaning persists and becomes ‘true’ to that collective. Specifically:
“Society is thought to be socially constructed through human interpretation. People interpret one another’s behavior, and it is these interpretations that form the social bond.”George Herbert Mead
I would think this also makes sense to many of you. What you learn during your primary years is what you accept as the way things are. From minor examples like, we all use utensils to eat and drive on the right-hand side of the road in Canada, to challenging examples: people smoking despite medical evidence it kills you, having a Big Truck but live in a city and work at an office, your perception of flannel or someone of another race. I feel comfortable arguing that this makes extreme sense. We grow into our understanding of the world around us by interpreting the subjective meanings placed on everything by those who raise us. We are thereby attached to, and excited for, the rituals laid out for us throughout our life stages.
Mead goes on to explain the self is developed in four ways:
1. The self develops solely through social experience
2. Social experience consists of the exchange of symbols (language, etc.)
3. Knowing others’ intentions requires imagining the situation from their perspective
4. Understanding the role of the other results in self-awareness
Point four will come up again later but, pausing for a second, let’s look back at social contract theory. Rousseau is saying people exist within ‘a status’ that determines their freedom. Your freedom is gauged by the amount of obedience you are expected to offer (because remember, we live in 2019 – so we are born with the generational knowledge of our status). Put these together and we have this: your breadth of self is predetermined (in part) by where your social contract begins (Rousseau), but your sense of self arises from your social experience (how hard did your parents work, did you grow up in a house or apartment) which is reliant on your ability to interpret the subjective social symbols of your ‘class’. This is the beginning of whether you perform well in society based on your performance of the basic/starter symbols.
We wonder why there are so many lost people. We are asked to begin to understand these symbols from the moment we open our eyes, with no guarantee that the people guiding us are a success! And now, we live in a world where those above and below you no longer have the patience to (#3) see where you are coming from. If you widen this statement, you can see why race, gender, and intelligence are such contested spaces. Our world got really big, and we no longer know how to connect with the world at large in a meaningful way.
I think I have spent my life focused on point three. I was saying to Aisha the other day that it’s like I have lived without an innate sense of self-preservation or an insatiable need to understand others implicitly. The few times I have erected a boundary it has been after a ‘cost’ tally almost too great to pay. I have explored so many different types of people, situations, addictions, and predilections, in part, because my path got a little jarred (read: A Trouble Shared) but also because of my inherent empathy and curiosity. I believe I have a wider conceptualization of what a social contract should be, because of this. I would not give this trait up for the world, but I had to realize (a while ago) that I had an unacknowledged ‘expectation’ of others. It went something like, I’ll take amazing care of you, so you will of course take amazing care of me, which was a set up for failure.
My sister said the other day, “Your level of care for others is exhausting.” I quickly replied, “Yup, but I’ve managed to pare down who I care about to a smaller number,” because I used to care about everyone with this level of commitment. It really was exhausting, but this trait is something I have always valued having, so I needed to find a way for it to work.
When I consider why people seem reticent or unable to adopt a wide perspective (natural ability to consider another’s point of view from the outset), I come to one assumption. The fear of acknowledging the worldview of another means you could lose something valuable. Which is fair, because we usually do lose something, be it a misconception or bias. But sometimes that feels unsafe, so I get it. No judgement.
I will just bring up point four again here, for … two seconds.
So, our capacity for establishing our social contract may be predetermined by our kin and we either un/successfully enact or abandon our social contract based on our ability to appropriately interpret the social symbols of our community. Cooley can help me drive home why this has any weight. He explains that our sense of self not only arises from the exchange of social symbols and the understanding of the symbolic meanings but also from one significant other “we imagine perceives us in a certain way.” A Judge (this person is fluid through time (maybe); parent, lover, friend) is then established and we assume we are appraised by these perceptions, thereby subconsciously adjusting our actions and behaviour. Our innate need to feel validated results in our value being determined by how we think that ‘other’ perceives us.
A) Our success is based on our ability to interpret social symbols as everyone else does
B) We can not independently choose how we navigate this interpretation unless we are self aware enough to find the resources to change our ‘status’
C) And our lens of interpretation is (potentially) focused by one person only and breaking that lens is the most important part of self awareness
Until recently I had a dependence on others that was insidious and shocking. Toxic relationships were my jam – my life was riddled with personal conflict and drama, but theoretically, my primary world should have prevented this from occurring. I had great role models, my family was economically secure, and I had my health. But I needed, and love, validation so I sought my sense of self-worth in the eyes of others for years; I made decisions with too many extra people in mind. Why?
Well, before we go off and inspect this question referencing my user guide for social contracts, let me make sure I have you completely on board. From a young age I was acutely aware of social contracts. My parents were popular, we lived in a small (class divided) town, my sibling is six years older than me, and I have an inherent sense of others. I over value my part of the social contract (be kind, trust people, be yourself, be gentle and you will succeed; people will treat you well if you fulfill your social duties) but realized that from puberty on, I subconsciously chose to enter disproportionately unequal relationships. I got lost somewhere and have ended up leading a very interesting and socially educational life because of that; I can’t help but question whether there hadn’t been an easier path?
I hope you understanding why I bring these theories up – I have confidence you do, which is why we are now moving onto my mental meanderings.
An Independent Example of a Social Contract: Jo’s Covenant
Going forward I would like you to pick a person in your life you are close with who you need a refreshed view of. Going back to Mead, we are about to focus in on points three and four, so pick someone that you can casually think about and be ok thinking about – if you have an intense, shaky relationship with your partner/parent/child – do NOT pick them.
At any point in my life, I focus on tangible, concrete things I can accomplish in order to make sure I remain dynamic, not static. In my case, static equals Depression in a really crappy, debilitating way. The second habit I have is to connect with the people I know how to connect with, to make sure they are good and steady. I have had to adapt both constantly as my energy and ability have adjusted over the years. Adaptation has encouraged me to really work on my social contracts, which we’ll get to below. But when life hits the ‘uh oh’ level for stress or uncertainty, such as now (the situation with Aisha’s leg, housing and job markets, friends/family/community) these two ‘aspects’ become beasts I have to constantly wrangle, or I would probably end up completely micromanaging duderroo (which is dangerous and not cool). I’ll be honest, this is the first time in my life where I am aware of that and absolutely DO NOT want to do that, and so, I almost broke last week. I almost broke because suddenly, I was standing in a very dusty, vast space in my mental-emotional plane with only one clear tether when I thought I had had at least six strong ones. I felt so utterly and desolately alone, with the rug so completely pulled out that my entire world flickered away for a whole minute. And now I’m here … reworking/adapting my covenants again and have decided to invite you along. What happened? My interpretations of where things were, were off; my Judge had a different view of me/of things than I had thought, and so I literally lost my perspective.
I think a unique trait of mine, that I have successfully adapted over decades, is that even though I don’t have an actual clue of WTF I am doing, I get bigger, I organize more, I talk more, I get more vulnerable and if you matter enough to me, I will open my chest and brain so you can dive in and take whatever you need. Because I can – and I want to help you. That is my covenant.
With my family 1.0 (mother, sister), my covenant to them is that I am always here for them. I may never have what they have to offer, but I love them and will champion them to the end. It took me a long time to realize that their expectations of my role/contract/status changed when my sib got her F2.0 and mum lost her mate. I wanted everyone close, not realizing this was supposed to catapult me into some version of “Eat. Pray. Love.” I kind of did (NS) but I left too soon (considered others more) to come back, and my attempts at establishing F2.0 were becoming nuclear disasters. I think I wore my F1.0 out. No, I know I did. I also know that my mum and I became dependent on certain rituals that are still in the process of silently being reworked because they are not sustainable and are exclusive. I am working on trying not to wear my sis out but still being honest and present with her. I do know that they know, no matter what, how much I love them. It may drive them bonkers, but hey … I yam what I yam.
With my family 2.0 (A-bomb and Duderonomy) my covenant is completely new to me. I think my series of unfortunate events had to happen they way they did because I was going to meet these two. I have a labyrinth of mirrors for Aisha (#3 Mead) that surprises even me. Meaning, when I get out of sorts (insert whatever negative emotion here) I can just sit with it and allow myself to acknowledge it. I literally have almost no reaction to things that two years ago would have had me in a silent rampage, which means we can quickly work on what is causing such a crappy situation. Because you see, I realize that my covenant with her started with my acceptance that we are literally, completely and wholly opposite people. We have the same beliefs, morals, etc. but who we are is fundamentally different. She flows, I dig in; She wonders, I plan; I confront, she waits; She is cluttered, I am germophobic minimalist. It is amazing for my mind to analyze because it makes no sense; I just love her. Duderroo is a different story, and this is where I can say I now get the parent thing. My only covenant to him is I will always model (or try!) my best self and make sure he is ok; all he must do is continue to grow selfishly but respectfully. I want nothing back.
In a recent post, Winter reminds us of the human condition, I say at one point “people are cruel”. When working out my social contract with ‘the rest of you’, I realize that this sentiment does not fit with my heart-view, and my heart is what drives my social contract. So, why do I say it? Part of me wants to say that it’s because I do not take enough responsibility for explaining my ‘part’, how I’m here to help and thereby putting everyone at ease, allowing the good to flow. But that isn’t very social, that is ‘selfish’. So, I’m going to share the responsibility with you.
If people are not kind, they have forgotten Mead #3. If people are cruel, their Judge may not be kind and their self image is probably not great. It is incredibly hard to identify and then assess whether your judge is a good judge. Sometimes this person is your only parent and, well, you don’t want to lose them. It helps me to think about my past relationships when I try and sort through this. Not because my exes were cruel, but we all go from loving someone to … not. Breakups can be messy, cruel things said, friends lost – you know how it goes. In my case, I have had to work through a lot of guilt that my exes lost their vibrancy and seemed to shrink because of me somehow. Was it me? Or was it the inevitable result of a mismatched relationship? I’ll go ahead and suggest that a) we just didn’t have the same social basis for our contracts and b) they had unconscious expectations of me that they could not communicate (and me, them, don’t worry). I believe that your fundamental values need to be exact, or else these subconscious expectations gain permanence you would NOT believe. Relationships are the perfect microcosm of social relations: we meet, get interested, chemistry matches, fire ignites – then either a viable partnership is established, or the deal falls. Relationships end because we forgot what we were willing to “compromise” in the beginning.
One great example of this is bedtime. My guiltiest pleasure is going to bed at 7:30 if I am inclined. This rarely happens now, but given the opportunity, I’d take it. I tried dating someone who would gladly NEVER sleep. Ever. At first it was exciting and really ego-boosting that someone never wanted me to sleep because they wanted to be with me that much. I tried to be a non-sleeper, and it did not work. At all, but a good lesson for me to learn. Another, more pervasive example is that I hate confrontation, I’d rather agree to sit with you for hours or days to calmly explore why we’ve come to where we are. The minute voices rise I fall apart, either cry or get super-scary-angry and I don’t like either. This has obviously been a hard one to casually throw out to prospective partners and many breakups have happened because of my communication style. Knowing your communication style is hard because honestly there are so many landmines for each of us that creating a map takes awhile and a lot of trust. Aisha takes time to process, but knows she doesn’t like to argue, manipulate or put me down so she can get the upper hand. While she doesn’t love my level of deep explorative discourse, the fact that we both hate confrontation means we inherently have an easier time coming together to talk about the hard stuff.
So, friends, start your social covenant with a pure and selfish understanding of what you need, and need in the way as if you were alone. These needs are the foundation of how you operate on a base level – are you a coffee or tea person? Do you like morning beverages? Do you drink alcohol? Is it important for you to be able to have a glass of something whenever you want? Do you need Sundays to be lazy? Because these small details, if we don’t honor them, create the cracks that do the most damage. These are what we start judging others on not ‘giving’ us when things get rough and we have no right to expect another to take care of these for us, even if we have given them a heads up.
Mead #4: Understanding the role of the other results in self-awareness.
I feel privileged to say that I think I have figured out how continue with a big heart, but in a healthy way because I am now fully aware of what ‘needs’ I can not compromise on. Aisha is my first truly kind, non-judgemental judge; I am perfect to her. While I laugh at that, it has helped me have a more lenient view of things I thought I was immoveable on that were socially isolating. She (and a lot of self reflection) has helped me figure out why these ‘things’ derail me, (alcohol, humor, politics, self-presentation, character in general) and this flexibility is extending to how I am manifesting my new social life. If you don’t want a wholesome covenant with me (which I can now identify within a healthy time period), that doesn’t mean you can’t be in my life. I can just drop my common or primary covenant I’d typically offer and extend to you the secondary or backup one I am currently drafting. The only revision to that is I will make more of an effort to understand where we differ in our foundation so that I don’t exhaust myself.
So, here is where we look at you. Think about the person I described before. What is going on? Are you feeling unvalidated or overlooked? Are you unhappy with this person, so you are creating a situation to force change? Here’s a personal example. An amazing friend (let’s call them Bronson) who was super present in my life and helped me do a lot of growing isn’t really in my life anymore. Something changed when I met Aisha (namely, I got an insta-family which changed my availability for what Bronson and I usually did). But no conversation happened to address this, and over time the relationship changed in my heart. Duderroo loved Bronson so much and looked forward to their visits, but when those visits became months apart, and other details changed, I realized that I felt more like a … client (it felt formal/transactional) when I viewed them like a family member. So, I thought about it. What was my part and had I owned it before turning my reflection on Bronson? I believe yes, as much as I am comfortable doing. It can be incredibly impactful to look at someone and say, “I acknowledge my part, and I am sorry. I need to say that when you do X, I feel like Y and we need to work together to change that.”
But my continued frustration and anger made me realize that it was because I was not picking up on whatever had implicitly changed, so I was creating a situation where Bronson could now, never do right. That is what I mean about taking responsibility. Bronson did not want a friend who now had a young family whose lives got real fucking messy. While that sucks for me and I wish they had made that clear before I introduced them, it is totally fair. So, the last thing I must decide is whether I can be a friend to someone that isn’t that invested in the people I am most invested in. Sadly, and historically, my answer to this is no. Now, there is no situation and I am at peace with Bronson. I am here for them should they ever need me. I will love them always and have so much appreciation for what we shared. And I hope to meet them again when they want to be close with my unit. But most importantly, the interactions we have now I can just accept for what they are: a lovely connection.
Back to you. Retracting/isolating to care for yourself or getting bigger and organizing more, either one, I don’t think it matters. I think, regarding covenants, it is about making sure you are the one to identify and then address the problem, if there is one. This may be exhausting for awhile, but you’ll see you don’t have to continue for long. You really will attract people more like you who naturally line up with your needs.
When you are meandering along and suddenly it is not as smooth and you or your person happen to shrink or change instead of growing, well, then you must do the work to find out why. Do you need to be let go? Do you need to let go? It is not fair to expect people to continue growing with you if they’ve come up against their Judge and they aren’t prepared to hurdle this challenge yet. You can try asking them how they are doing in the big picture. But be prepared to invest in this; you’ll need to listen, actively, and respond appropriately.
I’ve realized that not being able to talk about what you are thinking about in this self reflection, I kind of have no where to go haha. I suppose that I have addressed what I wanted to. There are reasons why some of us can more easily move through this world socially speaking – and I don’t mean popularity. I mean those people who seem able to mould and direct their trajectory. There are reasons why even when you should have the world (or should be ‘nothing’ and be stuck in a minority class) you defy the odds and end up as the opposite. There are things you need to think about regarding who your lens to your ‘self’ is so that you can grow. For me, my social contracts are like a blueprint. I can build and adjust now, because I have taken my work on being empathetic and used it to foster self awareness.
I won’t lie. This has taken me fifteen years to figure out. It was hard, and at times felt like I was going to burst. But in the end, I believe I am a solid person for it. I have been able to work through grief, loss, happiness and anger. I have quelled my ego and calmed my brain. I don’t expect anyone to do this work, and I hope I haven’t made anyone uncomfortable. I just love being certain, I guess, and I love to share. So, here is how I found certainty in myself, despite years of feeling worthless and wrong.
Thank you, for reading through. I appreciate it more than you know.
“No one man can, for any considerable time, wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.”Nathaniel Hawthorne