THE BLOG

The Delicate Balance Between Self And Others

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA

I just finished a book called A Free Life by Ha Jin, the story of a Chinese immigrant, Nan, who leaves the dream of a Ph.D. and life as a poet to settle in the States and earn a living
to support his wife and son. Jin writes of Nan's life in a prose that unfolds not as a poet's
might but full of the day-to-day realism of life, the struggles of working in a field that is
not one's dream, and dealing with the ups and downs of being a parent, husband, and friend. The story unfolds with the additional twist of seeing the American way of life - with an emphasis on putting 'self' before others - through the eyes of a Chinese immigrant whose culture places others before self. The delicate balance of self and others, the struggle of independence and dependence, is brought to the fore in all of Nan's experiences.

It is a balance that requires attention. An over-emphasis on self and independence can lead to overindulgence, consumerism, and narcissism. An over-emphasis on others and dependence can lead to neglect of self, doubt, and a failure to attend to one's own health and well-being. There seems to be an ideal balance in the middle, an equilibrium of sorts, where an awareness of independence is balanced by an awareness of our dependent nature. A family is a key means to realize both. In a family, parents often sacrifice self for the good of the family while working to teach their children to independence.

It is a model unit for honing an awareness of both and in each of our day-to-day experiences in the family, we can see our own orientation toward this balance. In the aftermath of the Holiday season, generally full of family encounters, there is a new opportunity to observe your own role in the family unit. As I look at my family, I see our family equilibrium through my husband's emphasis on self and independence balanced by my orientation toward others and dependence. But we each carry some of the other as well, and as our children leave for college, a gradual shifting of roles is ensuing. Taking all humans as one giant family, there are cultures that emphasize dependency more than self-sufficiency while others do the reverse. For example, in some cultures it is common and encouraged to let babies fall asleep in their mother's arms, to sleep in a family bed, and to not let children cry themselves to sleep, while in other cultures the emphasis is on self-sufficiency - teaching infants to learn to self-regulate, to fall asleep alone, to soothe oneself and be independent. When cultures clash as they do in Jin's book, the rules and
regulations, the deeply engrained orientation of a people and their philosophies, values, and norms come into our awareness. In human evolution it seems that a distribution of varying degrees of dependency to independence are evident from family to family, culture to culture that yields an overall balance of sorts. Many families and cultures place a greater emphasis on self and this orientation is balanced by the vast number of people who place others first. As we move through the 21st century, perhaps we can move our evolutionary path forward by recognizing the value of both, and work toward finding a balance within each of us. As we each do that, one by one, there may be a jump in human evolution to a more balanced and peaceful co-existance where extremes are no longer need to exist to reach an overall state of balance.

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