The Narcissism of our Times

Deb and I have a general distaste for pathology-based diagnoses, like narcissism, as well as almost all the other diagnoses that are so popular these days. We have watched as society has come to frequently identify with ADHD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, learning disabilities, and various personality disorders. I hesitate to write this blog using this “N word” (narcissism) because it is so nasty. Narcissism suggests selfishness. But real narcissism is actually quite different from this simple understanding. There is a kind of selfishness that we see with narcissism, but to look deeper into what narcissism really means is important because it means much more than selfishness. In fact, it means the absence of self. Let me explain

Emotional development in early life

 Let’s start with how human life begins: in the womb. Think about it. When we were in utero, we didn’t have to breathe, much less do anything else. It must have been quite wonderful, if we say that in the general sense of the wonder. Then, during birth and for most of the first year we are hopefully properly cared for. Proper care for an infant is safety, comfort, and nurturance, about in that order. During this first year of life the only emotion that a human has is fear or the absence of fear. No joy, sorrow, or anger. Just fear. Why is that? To protect myself. I need to be afraid in order to be alive, and when I’m afraid as an infant, I do what infants do: cry. These cries are not for attention, at least for the most part. They are cries of felt danger. The “felt danger” could be that rumbling in the stomach (hunger), the dry sense in my mouth (thirst), or even simply being alone. I cry because I am scared.

The second year (perhaps later in the first year), things don’t change much although now I can walk and talk (a little). So, during this second year of life I feel the emotion of joy. Joy is the feeling of having something, whether that “something” is a doll, a blanket, or a hug from a parent. During this second year of life I learn to love things, like dolls and blankets and hugs, and this loving feels joyful. Then the big change occurs in childhood:

About age 2 or a bit later, I enter the “narcissistic time of life” or “natural narcissism.” This is a time where I love a whole lot more, lose a whole lot more, and don’t like it whatsoever. Think of it this way: during my first year of life I get mostly all of what I want because I don’t want much: just comfort, safety, and nurturance. Just a bottle, a hug, or a blanket. During the second year of life I want a few more things, but still I get most of what I want because I still don’t need much, I don’t want much and I get most of what I want and need. Not so when I turn about age two. Now, largely because I can walk, talk, run, and grab, my wants magnify by a magnitude of 100 or more. I simply want more. I want more ice cream. I want more toys. I want more hugs. I want, want, want. Fine. Wanting is fine. But what happens during the ages 2-5 is crucial: I don’t get most of what I want. Why is that? Because I want everything, certainly 100 times more than I wanted when I was an infant or a toddler. So, good parenting knows that the child who is 2-5 can’t have, and shouldn’t have all that he or she wants. So, good parenting says “no” 100 times to every “yes.” Consider how difficult this must be for the 3-year old. What’s wrong with the world? What’s wrong with my parents? I used to get pretty much everything I wanted and now I don’t get much of anything. It doesn’t occur to the young child that he or she wants so much more. So, the task of parenting of a 3-year old (or 2-5) is to limit, limit, limit. Not punish, punish, punish. Not give in, give in, give in. This no easy task for any parent because you hear things like I heard from Krissie when she was five having just come home from a store where she wanted everything and I bought her nothing: “I want a new Daddy.” This was her solution to not getting what she wanted. Seems reasonable if you consider that her previous daddy had given her most of what she wanted. Of course, that “previous daddy” was me. Must have been hard for Krissie.

This time of life 2-5 is the cause of adult narcissism. This same time of life is a time for “natural narcissism,” namely wanting everything and essentially being “selfish.” But we don’t use the term selfish for 3-year olds (hopefully) because 3-year olds should be selfish. They just shouldn’t get everything they want. In fact, they shouldn’t get most of what they want. This is where a lot of good loving parents go wrong: they do one of three things: give in too much, punish a child for wanting to much, or “explain why” the child can’t have everything s/he wants. Ideally, a parent simply allows the child to want, not get what s/he wants, puts up a fuss, still doesn’t get what s/he wants, and feel sad. To be angry at not getting everything you want is normal because anger is the central emotion that needs to be felt during these “natural narcissistic” years of 2-5. Anger is normal. But if a child is allowed to be angry…and not get what s/he wants…, that child will eventually become sad. Sadness is the most important emotion to learn, and it should be learned by the time the child reaches age five or six. The first year: fear; the second year: joy; the years 2-5: anger. Then for many years to follow, the school years, you learn to be sad. Most kids don’t reach sadness. They get stuck in fear, joy, or anger. What we then have is emotional immaturity.

Emotional immaturity

An interesting phenomenon that I often see in my office is what I have come to identify as “emotional immaturity.” Essentially, this means that an individual, whoever young or old, has not fully integrated the early emotions of fear, joy, and anger, and thus has not achieved the maturity of being able to be sad. Simply sad. This must sound rather odd: being sad is emotionally mature?  What? Is it good to be sad all the time? No, this is not what I am saying. Rather, I am suggesting quite clearly that sadness is the most mature of the four basic emotions. This does not mean that you are sad all the time, but it does mean that you are frequently sad. You are frequently sad because you have lost something, failed at something, or have been criticized in some way. These experiences happen every day to every person. Thus to be “emotionally mature” you have to be able to have something that you love, lose this something, feel sad about having lost this something, allow this sadness to run its course, finish feeling sad, and then love something else. This experience can take seconds or minutes. It rarely takes hours, but can take even longer for more significant losses. If I am disappointed because I spilled my coffee on myself, this disappointment, which is sadness, should last seconds, maybe a minute or more. If I lose a job opportunity that I was hoping for, the sadness associated with this loss may take minutes, or perhaps hours. If I lose a job that I have had for years, this sadness may take days or weeks. The death of my daughter has taken four months.

Emotionally immature people fail to move past the fear, joy, and anger that always occur during a loss. Thus, they fail to simply and profoundly feel sad about a loss. They remain afraid of dying (which is what an infant feels when s/he is hungry, wet, or alone); they remain joyful because they think they will have the something that they love forever; or they will remain angry because they have lost this something. It might make some sense that people can get stuck in fear and anger, but it must seem odd that people can get stuck in joy. Yes, this can happen. People get stuck in joy by pretending that they still have the something that they have lost. They pretend that everyone likes them, that they can do whatever they want, or that they can have whatever they want. People who are stuck in joy tend to live in a kind of a dream world often typified by imaginary dreams of being some kind of perfectly satisfied person in a perfect relationship, perfect job, or perfect place. Nothing wrong with imagining that one can have a satisfactory job in life, or even feeling the joy of such a thing. The difficulty is living that dream rather than the reality that there are true moments of joy and perfection in a moment but never forever. When people are stuck in the early life emotions of fear, joy, and anger, these emotions tend to dominate how they enter the world. They remain “narcissistic.”

Adult narcissism

Narcissism properly understood is not some kind of diagnosis. It is not something wrong. It is emotional immaturity. It is the failure to find sadness as the central ingredient in having a happy and satisfied life. Think of it this way: if I am expecting that I should have everything I want, I will experience fear (that I won’t have everything), joy (that I will have everything), or anger (that I didn’t get everything). This condition leaves the person in a constant state of fear, joy, or anger with one of these things dominating depending of where the individual got stuck in his/her early life. Thus, narcissism has three possible appearances depending on where people failed to integrate an emotion into their lives, or perhaps where they were indulged in emotional expression. If you look at yourself, you will find that you will be inclined to reside too much in fear, joy, or anger. We all do that in some way depending on how we were raised and what emotions were repressed or indulged. If I am raised in a family in which I feel danger, I will retain fear as the predominant emotion (instead of sadness), but I can also be raised in a family where fear was indulged, where everyone felt and talked about dangers all the time. Other families repress or indulge joy or anger. No one escapes these emotional traps because no one has a perfect infancy or childhood. There is no shame at being “emotionally immature” because we are all immature emotionally in some way. It is just good to know what your “go-to” emotion is so that you can work on moving beyond the early emotions into the mature emotion of sadness. In simple terms, the more you allow yourself to be sad, the less you will be angry or afraid. Yes, you will also be less joyful because you will give up living in a dream world where everything is perfect, but you will have great times of joy at really having something, not everything. The harder work for most people is to get beyond anger or fear that tend to dominate most people. This is what we have in our present culture: a dominance of fear and anger, but also a subtle dominance of imaginary joy.

The narcissism of our present culture

The phenomenon of President Trump is a phenomenon of narcissism. Yes, President Trump is most certainly narcissistic, but it is not helpful to “diagnose” him as having a narcissistic personality disorder despite how accurate this diagnosis actually is. No one is some exact copy of the so-called narcissistic personality disorder. Everyone has some “narcissism” in him/her, but this narcissism should be seen as emotional immaturity, not some kind of disease or diagnosis. I certainly cannot speak with any authority of Mr. Trump because I have never met him, nor do I know much about his family background to see how he has failed to mature emotionally. What we see on the surface, however, is the phenomenon of being dominated by fear, joy, and anger with little or no ability to feel sad. Trump displays great joy when he has what he wants or when someone likes him. He has frequently said of someone that they liked him including dictators like North Korea’s Un, Russia’s Putin, or the current right wing leaders of Hungary and Brazil. Simply put, he really enjoys it when someone likes him and it doesn’t seem to matter who that person is. I imagine him as a little boy saying, “He likes me! He likes me!” when someone likes him. And then, perhaps minutes or hours later, he is angry because someone doesn’t like him, or disagrees with him. It seems clear to me that underlying all of Trumps joy and anger is a good bit of fear, but this is just a psychological conjecture not based on any real evidence.

What Trump has brought out in the country, as narcissistic (emotionally immature) dictators all over the world have done, is a commonality with people who, themselves, are just as narcissistic (emotionally immature) as Trump is. Think of it this way: Trump says that everyone can be a billionaire, which of course is nonsense, but it is attractive to people who are “stuck in the joy of thinking they can have everything they want.” Then, just as quickly, people can be angry at someone or something that is “wrong” because they don’t like it. Most importantly, the underlying fear that is always at the heart of narcissism is abated by this artificial joy and undue anger. Trump’s message is this: “You can have everything you want. You just have to hate the people who are keeping you from having it.” This is the 3-year old still thinking that s/he can have it all.

So what is really happening in narcissism, this phenomenon that displays such a sense of entitlement and selfishness? Self-less-ness

The self-less-ness of narcissism

Deb and I wrote a chapter a few years ago in a book where we discussed the heart of narcissism, namely that on the surface it seems selfish but under the surface it is really self-less. Self-less is not the same as the more positive selfless, as in when one is generous, kind, and self-giving. Self-less is the lack of “self.” What we see in narcissistic people (which, to some degree or another, we all are) is the lack of a true sense of self. If I have a good sense of “self,” i.e. having a central “core self”, I will be able to be generous and kind, but more importantly, I will know how I feel, value how I feel, express how I feel, and ultimately communicate how I feel as well as have times knowing what I feel but being able to properly govern any expression of how I feel. This knowing, valuing, expressing, communicating, and governing feelings is the essence of the book Deb and I are finishing. Few people truly know how they feel so that they can express or choose not to express their feelings depending on the environment. By the way, when I use the term “feelings,” I am using the larger term that includes emotion but is not limited to emotions. The task of becoming a mature person includes emotional maturity, but it includes much more, like knowing how you feel physically, being able to think clearly without emotional intrusion, and ultimately to be able to do something meaningful in life. Maturity is not singularly emotional maturity, but if I am not emotionally mature, I most certainly will not be able to be cognitively mature or actively mature. I will think but my thoughts will not be meaningful. I will do things but I won’t do anything meaningful. So what can be done? Maturing beyond childhood narcissism.

Maturing beyond natural narcissism

What does this mean? It means becoming aware of how I feel, including how I feel emotionally, valuing how I feel, and having a place for all basic emotions: fear (of infancy), joy (of toddlerhood), anger (of preschool years), and ultimately sadness of the rest of life. The central ingredient in emotional maturity is to recognize what you feel and allow it to be there. Thus, if anger is your go-to emotion, allow yourself to be angry. Then you will eventually see that you are angry at something you lost and have not yet grieved. If your go-to emotion is joy, realize that joy comes from having something but all “somethings” are eventually lost, and then come to the knowledge that this joy is real but temporary. If your go-to-emotion is fear, realize that you were originally in an unsafe environment and have retained that infantile fear. Then, you will be able to see that the world is no longer unsafe: just a world where you will have something and lose something.

Much of emotional maturity has to do with people, namely with what other people say and do, or what they might say or do, or what they have said or done. If I am caught in the joy of attending to what one person says or does, I will be enthralled for the moment, but that moment will end. If I am caught in being angry with what someone has said or done, I will be angry, but need to realize that he or she just doesn’t like something. If I am caught in fear, I will worry about what this person might say or do to me. I need to come back to reality: he may like me; he may not like me. If he likes me, it will be joyful; if he doesn’t like me, it will be sad.

Further Reading

Brock and Johnson (2011). Narcissism as evil. In Evil explained, Vol. 1: definitions and development. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2020 forthcoming). I need to tell you how I feel. Madison, WI: Midlands Psychological associates

Lowen, A. (1983). Narcissism: denial of the true self. New York: Macmillan.

West, M. (2016). Into the darkest places: early relational trauma and borderline states of mind. London: Karnac.

Sharing Grief

You might know that my daughter, Krissie, died just a few weeks ago. Understandably, this event has had a rather profound effect on me, as well as others who knew Krissie, both family and friends. The effect on me, and of course on others, has been one of grief. These past six weeks has been extraordinary as I have been grieving…and sharing grief with others.

The blog I published just yesterday was on the I-You-Me theory I have discovered over the recent years, namely how people of different natures have different ways of establishing and maintaining relationships. Simply put, I find that there are three predominant ways that people “relate” one another, namely with what I have called “I-first” people, “You-first” people, and “We-first” people. (There are also some subsets of these basic three kinds of relating discussed in the previous blog.) I-first people begin a relationship on what they feel, think, and do; and then they tend to make statements about themselves. You-first people begin a relationship with what the other person thinks, feels, or does; and then they tend to ask questions of the other person. We-first people tend to wait until something happens in the relationship, whether one of words or actions as they look the find what they call a “connection” with the other person. I have admitted that I am an I-first person.

Sadness and Grieving

You may be aware that Deb and I wrote a book entitled The Positive Power of Sadness not long ago, which is a rendering of what we have come to believe is the most important, and the most love-based emotion in the human experience, namely sadness. We have come to believe that this love-based emotion comes about singularly when there has been a loss, specifically a loss of something that the person has loved. As we note in our book this loss can be of person, property, or idea. While most people think that the loss of a person is the most profound loss, people can feel just as much sadness when they lose property or an idea does not work as they hoped that it would. Deb and I continue to assist every one of our patients with facing the losses that they have experienced in life, and in so doing avoid the tendency to fall into the emotions of fear and anger or the condition of depression. So we know quite a bit about sadness, and frankly speaking, are pretty good at feeling sadness instead of anger and fear. Anger, by the way is the emotion that occurs when I have lost something in the past, and fear is the emotion that occurs when I consider that I might lose something in the future.

Our ongoing journey of grief

This has been a remarkable journey indeed, and it has been particularly remarkable one for me because I am the I-first person noted above and in my previous blog. Recall that I-first people tend to establish and maintain relationships with statements, usually statements about what they think, feel, or do. So, during these past six weeks I have done just that and have found something quite remarkable, and seemingly quite memorable. The remarkable thing about these weeks of grieving is how I have felt the value of the relationships I have established, mostly built upon people’s kindness, generosity, and selflessness as they have shared my grief, and very often Deb’s and my shared grief. I think I have found what We-first people seek all the time, namely the connection that two (or more) people can have when one person shares something with another person. In the case of this past few weeks, the sharing has been of our grief, but we have also had times of sharing joys with many people. This “connection” that We-people seem to know so much about has found its way into my soul. I am a changed person as a result. Let me tell you of some of the encounters over these past weeks, almost all of them in regards to someone hearing, feeling, or listening to me (us) regarding our loss:

  • The person at the counter at Starbucks, which is Deb’s most preferred brief hangout when she seeks her caffeine addiction. Deb happened to mention that she was “coping” when the barista simply asked, “How are you?” This led to this woman coming around the counter, hugging Deb and crying with but what has become the most treasured words, “Oh, I am so sorry.” Just sorry. Nothing more.
  • Many more of these encounters. Like the time, now about 3 weeks ago in my Madison office, after my first day back at work. It was the end of the day and I just locked my door and was walking towards the stairs when a pleasant older woman sitting in the waiting room brimmed a most pleasant smile and wished me a good night. I walked hallway down the stairs and then found I was compelled to return to the third floor. I did so, and said to the woman that I particularly appreciated her smile and greeting because the recent days had been hard as my daughter had died. She immediately got out of her chair, and asked if she could hug me. “Certainly,” I said.
  • The first day back at church, actually on the Sunday after Krissie had died when I was supposed to preach. The person who filled in for me that day mentioned that he was a bit surprised to see me there and mentioned my loss. Immediately, several people (all men, I believe), gathered around me as I found myself in tears.
  • Deb and I traveled “west” not knowing where we might go beyond “west” but we knew that we wanted to get to the source of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota. We did what all people do in this sacred place: walked across the Mississippi River. We went back to the car after an hour or so at these waters, but were somehow compelled to return once more to this spot where the great river begins. Deb asked a young lady if she would be so kind to take our picture, and then noted that Krissie had died and we were scattering some of Krissie’s ashes at the source of the Mississippi. She did what so many people of her nature do at such times: her hand went immediately to her chest, she begin crying, and then hugged us. After the pictures she took of us scattering, crying, and the like, she said it had “been a great honor” to be of service.
  • Another such chance encounter happened closer to our cabin “up north” as we say in Wisconsin. We were on a trek to a falls that Krissie and her kids had taken with us a couple of times. Deb again happened to encounter a woman who asked how we were only to hear of our loss. Without missing a second, she turned to her friend and said, “Ashley, come over here, we’re going to pray.” Then she proceeded to hug us, together with her friend Ashley, and pray for us. Don’t know if I will ever see her again, but she is now is “connected” forever.
  • Many more such encounters with “strangers no more” while their names are not in my vocabulary.
  • Many moments of sharing with Krissie’s friends, particularly at the celebration of life in Bloomington where she lives.
  • I think I have received no less than 100 unsolicited hugs over these past weeks, maybe another 100 emails and more cards and letters. Each of them has been meaningful and helpful.
  • Of course, Deb and I have been “connected” all the more with each of us taking turns crying and holding one another.
  • Among other things remarkable is the fact that I have hugged my sun-in-law, Lamont, perhaps 50 times over these weeks, about 49 times more than I have ever hugged him.

Sharing Grief

It has been enlightening to have had these many experiences of connection, most with strangers, some with friends, and of course some with family. I am a changed person. Yet grieving, yet recovering. I am indebted to these many people, none of them true strangers, for their kindness. The experience has taught me, as I seem to continually be taught by many experiences in life, that there is value in shared grief. I say so to people, like a friend this very morning as we were having a cup of coffee together and heard from him how he “couldn’t imagine how it would be to lose a child” as his eyes welled up. I told him, as I told everyone who shared my grief, that it was helpful to be loved by his sharing this grief with me. I’m not sure that many people truly understand how grief is meant to be shared and how profitable it is to the grieved as well as consoler. It seems that people who are able and willing to this simple task of love have a good sense of who they are and hence can care, if for a moment, more about me than they do about themselves. I look to be more gracious in such things.

Just one brief note regarding the sharing of grief: some people are unable to actually share grief with others. This is because they have not finished their own grief. So when someone with unfinished grief encounters someone grieving, there is a mixture of feelings including a desire to avoid grief altogether and a kind of jealousy that the other person is grieving if place of the person being asked to share the grief. There is no shame in this inability to share grief, but it is impossible for such a person to genuinely love someone else in the other person’s grief when their grief is yet so unresolved.

I Walk A Little Slower Now

I walk a little slower now

My gate not up to speed

I step and step, but then I bow

My back like bread to knead


I stumble on a step or two

But find I cannot bear

This burden but for just a few

Seconds as I stare


I stare, I stare, I stare once more

As if I could but see

My daughter on another shore

Somewhere ahead of me.


I stare, I look, I carefully inspect

That shore I think I see

I look, I think, I feel and yet respect

For what must certainly be


I stare, I look, I think, I feel

My hope for this last claim.

But it’s enough for me to steal

A glance from God’s domain

Ron Johnson




The I-You-We Approach to Relatiionships

The I-You-We Approach to Relationships

There are three main ingredients in any relationship, namely “I” (myself), “You” (the other person), and “We” (the combination of “I” and “You”). People tend to focus on one of these three elements, somewhat on a second item, and much less on the third item. This discussion is intended to shed some light on some of the ways people engage in looking at a relationship. Depending on how a person starts this process of examining and establishing a relationship determines how s/he approaches this very basic element of human existence: relationship. Before we examine the differences between the “I”-first approach, the “You”-first approach, and the “We first approach, we need to discuss this murky word “relationship” because there is no consistent understanding of what this word means, much less how a relationship unfolds, improves, or deteriorates.

I should start by acknowledging that I am an “I”-first person because readers need to be aware of how I see relationships, but we will discuss this in a moment. I mention the fact that I am an “I”-first person because all writing has an important autobiographical element to it, however esoteric or scientific the writer might be. I mention this personal orientation to understanding what a relationship is because I actually recall a time when the word “relationship” became popular, namely in the 1960’s, largely in the later 60’s, about the time I was in graduate school studying psychology. I vividly remember hearing my wife (at the time) and the marital therapist we were seeing at the time used the term “relationship” as if it was clear what that word meant. I recall saying, “What is this thing you are calling a relationship?” to the therapist.” I also recall his disbelief that the word had very little meaning to me because it was so clear to him. He was, by the way a “We”-first person, and recall that I am an “I”-first person. .Since this word “relationship” has been so frequently used over the recent 50 years, it might come as a surprise to many people that this word, as well as the concept underneath the word, did not exist in the field of psychology and in popular literature until the late 60’s.

A bit of history

A review of the literature over the past 60 years or so will discover that the use of the word relationship accelerated in the 70’s and beyond to the point that it is now a central concept in clinical psychology and in most people’s day-to-day vocabulary. I mention this entomology of “relationship” because I am somewhat suspect of how frequently the world is used today, often without much understanding of the very nature of how people seek to relate to one another. Furthermore, many elements of our current culture are replete with references to “relationship” as if this word, and the concept under the word, had an exact and universal definition. The church I attend has as its motto: “…to build a relationship to God.” Now, I ask you, what does “building a relationship with God” mean to you, to me, and to everyone else? Something quite different, I suspect. I don’t want to disregard the essence of a relationship because I agree that the concept is dreadfully important. My interest in this discussion is to examine some ways that people see the essence of a relationship and how the differences in how people understand the concept of a relationship can create a myriad of successes and an equal amount of failures as they seek to “relate” to one another.

What are the possibilities?

So let me set the stage for this “I-You-We” discussion. As briefly noted above, people tend to have a predominance of one of these items in how the form a relationship. If you had a bit of advanced math, you know that there are six permutations, which is to say there are six possible arrangements of the three items. (Just for fun for folks who like such things, we arrive at this with the formula P = 3x2x1 = 6.). So these possibilities include three each that begin with one of the three items:

  • I-You-We and I-We-You
  • You-I-We and You-We-I
  • We-You-I and We-I-You

Think of these possibilities as a way people engage someone else. I-first people begin a relationship with the perspective of who they are, and perhaps what they feel, think or do. You-first people begin a relationship with the perspective of examining who the other person is. We-first people look at who the two people are together. Right off the bat, I suspect, I have lost some of you possibly because two of these possibilities makes no sense. For instance, We-first people might think something like, “A relationship is two people together, not so much one person and another person. Obviously a relationship is what happens between two (or more) people.” I-first and You-first people might vociferously differ from this perspective. I-first people might say, “Well, you have to have an I before you have a We, right?” You-first people could say, “If you’re going to have a relationship with someone, you have to know who that person is, what s/he thinks, feels, and does. Only then can you relate to that person.” Sound familiar? Do you find yourself saying one of these things? The reaction you have might suggest to which camp you might belong.

I will take the liberty of looking at three (of the six) possibilities (“permutations”) to focus on who people begin the process of relating:

  • I-first people would seem to have the more rational approach to a relationship. They simply think that “relating” to someone begins with one feels, thinks, or does. Then, they go into the You and We parts of a relationship depending on their next preference. I think that most I-first people think of the You part next, but that suggestion may simply be a projection of how I go about relating to someone. I tend to speak first, listen second, and then occasionally try to find some commonality between the other person and me. The I-first people I have known tend to favor the I-You-We formula of relating.
  • You-first people operate quite differently, and the key to their way of relating is in the format they use to relate. They ask questions. Their perspective is, “If I can understand the other person, I can then have an opportunity of relating to that person.” They then try to fit in, agree with, or sometimes carefully challenge the other person. But the heart of their relating is in the focus they have, namely how the other person thinks, feels, or acts. The You-first people, tend to be You-I-We in orientation to relationships.
  • We-first people are different yet in their seeking a relationship. They do not actually spend much time assessing of what they think, feel, or do, nor do they think much about what the other person thinks, feels, or does. Rather, they think that everyone approaches the matter of relationship as they do because they are so oriented to the We part of a relationship. So, they may talk (like I-first people) or ask questions (like You-first people). More often, however, they will just “feel” their way into a relationship or a conversation. So they will say, “It feels right” or “It feels wrong.” This “feeling” of right or wrong is tantamount to feeling “connected” or disconnected, words that we will discuss in a moment. The We-first people I have known tend to have the We-You-I orientation predominantly.

The strengths of these three orientations

  • We-first people seem to have the inside track of the whole business of relationship. They certainly use the term “relationship” more frequently and are on the lookout for how they “feel” with someone almost all the time. I think of these folks as having the “lover” temperament that I have written about. Lovers are those who look for “connections” with other people. I am reminded of an old friend who once said that every morning he would think about how he could “connect” with someone, and then go about his day looking for these connections. Another We-first person has fallen in love with my suggestion that his orientation is about connecting to someone, and it has given him the freedom to see that he is seeking reciprocal love with any and all people he knows, most specifically his wife (who happens to be an I-first person).
  • I-first people, like myself (and my wife) are much more inclined to make statements and declare ourselves (what we think, feel, and do) as a way of establishing a relationship. The underlying operation is something like, “I will give person A the opportunity of knowing me so s/he can decide whether I am a person who they might want to relate to.” The basic strength of us folks is that we know where we stand, what we believe in, what we have done, and the like. We assume (often mistakenly) that everyone else knows where they stand on things.
  • You-first people are yet different from I-first and You-first people mostly distinguished by their tendencies to ask questions of people, quite contrary to the I-first people who make statements of themselves. The gift these people have is a more genuine interest in other people than in themselves or even in a relationship that might ensue. We might suggest that they love people best, whereas I-first people love themselves best, and We-first people love the connection between people best.

The opportunities of these three orientations

  • We-first people are the best at knowing this vague thing we call a relationship because they understand the spiritual nature of a connection between two (or more) people. They “feel” something or the lack of it, and that “something” cannot be defined, just as a relationship cannot be defined. These folks are the best at cooperation, agreement, and common purpose. They make the best negotiators, for instance, because they give each party opportunity to speak while focusing on how the two (or more) people can find common ground and eventually common purpose and procedure.
  • I-first people are best as stating themselves. They simply state what they know or believe, or have done, and less so what they feel emotionally. You can trust these people most because they have the most established ways of saying what they believe, feel, or have done. They give the other person the opportunity of knowing who they are with the expectation that the other person will then return the favor. I-first people tend to be better at admitting to error than the other two types.
  • You-first people are best at understanding other people. As noted, they ask questions, and often questions upon questions with the primary intent of understanding the other person, and often know more about the other person, perhaps even more than the other person knows about his/herself. You-first people can put other people at ease and give them room to talk about themselves, something that is quite lacking in most social encounters when most people are looking for air time to talk about themselves.

The challenges of these three orientations

  • All three of these orientations have the intrinsic weakness of thinking that everyone else is just like them, but We-first people are perhaps most inclined to this weakness. When I hear from We-first people (or “lovers”), they always say that the difficulty they have with people is that it isn’t “fair,” which means that they haven’t received the care for the We part of the relationship. So, they think that I-first people are selfish and You-first people don’t say anything about themselves. We-first people often get lost in their relationships and lack a sense of You and I in favor of their constant looking for We. Then, they tend to get angry or critical, which is quite opposite to their true nature of loving and connecting.
  • I-first people are the most inclined of the three orientations to be self-centered. Because they so often know what they think, feel, and do, they tend to dominate relationships by talking about themselves, erroneously believing other people will do the same. With few exceptions I-first people do not grasp the “connection” nature that is so central to We-first people.
  • You-first people often lack a sense of self. This is because they are so focused on other people that they have not found time, interest, and ability to develop a sense of what they think, feel, and do. This “getting lost” in someone else is easy for them because they are so intrinsically interested (and loving of) other people, that they have not sufficiently established a true understanding and love of themselves, which sometimes feels to them as “selfish.”

The challenges and opportunities for all orientations

  • In all cases, and with all people, there is a necessity of growing beyond one’s basic nature. Importantly, however, one needs to know, value, and operate with one’s basic nature before s/he can grow beyond this nature. Carl Jung and many other classic psychologists and psychological theorists have suggested that this growing, or what we might call maturity, occurs later in life, rarely before age 50, and sometimes never at all. If one does not mature beyond his/her nature, that person will fall prey to becoming postured in one’s basic nature feeling the centrality of this nature. This amounts to being defensive, and it is a sticky thing to feel and observe because there is nothing wrong with one’s basic nature, but one’s basic nature is quite clearly not sufficient to pursue life successfully.
  • A second danger for all three orientations is that the secondary and tertiary elements in a relationship tend to be undeveloped, and hence immature. This means that I-first people end up being critical of other people (the You part) and dismiss the We part altogether. We-first people think only of connecting, but then their undeveloped I often comes up immaturely and ends up demanding or yelling. You-first people tend to fail in knowing and valuing themselves as much as they value others, and fall into a kind of hopelessness of knowing about others but not themselves.
  • However good it is for We-first people to love and connect, it is not good enough. They have to develop the I and the You to be mature and find success in life and in relationships. The so-called “co-dependent” relationships (not a term a really like, however), are often made up on one We-first person and an I-first person, or even more dangerous, both people being We-first people who don’t know who they are.
  • I-first people have to come to grips with the necessity of the connection that We-first people know and love and find ways to find this spiritual connection and value it. They also need to find the absolute necessity of knowing other people as well as they know themselves. Otherwise, they will end up postured in “knowing what I think, feel, and do” and not knowing much else.
  • You-first people most specifically need to find the I part of life. Because they are so intrinsically interested in other people, and because there are always other people to examine, understand, and even love, they often fail to have a sense of who they are. They can speak fluently about what someone else thinks, feels, or does, but have greater difficulty saying what they think, feel, or do.
  • In all three cases there is a seduction of one of these three natures:
    • I-first people are seduced by their own existence
    • You-first people are seduced by others’ existence
    • We-first people are seduced by the connections that they have…or don’t have

I suggest you find yourself in one of these three orientations and then examine other the people in your life, like friends and family members. Then just get some good psychotherapy, which ideally helps you see what is good about you first, and then how to add to that goodness.