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How We Ensure Others Like Us

Harry Stack Sullivan was an early Psychoanalytic theorist who has had considerable impact on Psychoanalytic development, particularly in the U.S.  Interpersonal Therapy developed out of his (amoungst others) theories. 

Learning social etiquette is essential for relationships: 'The Self'

Sullivan proposed that learning to balance our attention towards what he termed ‘The Self’ and our internal desires, was central to our well-being.  Sullivan believed that central to our sense of well-being, is the issue of whether or not significant others like and accept us.  ‘The Self’, as he termed it, is the part of our personality that is geared towards learning behaviours that will enable others to feel comfortable and happy around us.  If ‘The Self’ operates well, we learn how to act in a manner that makes people feels safe and comfortable around us, and as a result, significant others enjoy our company and this in turn gives us a strong sense of self-esteem. 

As Sullivan saw it, human infants have an incredible capacity for learning behaviours that are taught by their carers or significant others.  An infant couldn’t possibly fathom all the pros and cons of why she is doing many of the things she is expected to do.  Why does she have to learn to use a potty instead of soiling her nappy?  She does not understand this.  She rather does it in order to please her carer, and obtaining a sense that her carer is pleased with her is essential to her sense of self-worth and self-esteem.  As Sullivan saw it, society has developed social customs over thousands of years, and many of them are passed down from parents to children without either party fully understanding or considering the full reasoning behind these customs.  He says that this blind passing down of customs from one generation to the next facilitates people feeling comfortable around one another.  If one adheres to basic etiquette and accepted social values, then others do not feel threatened by this person.  However, he suggests that if we actually had to start from scratch and work out for ourselves the pros and cons of every behaviour we are doing, it might take hundreds of years to come to solid conclusions as to what behaviours bring about better results around others.   Therefore, central to human beings development is the capacity to learn a vast multitude of behaviours and customs in a very short space of time (a dozen or so years) in order that humans are comfortable living in closely knit communities with one another, feeling safe and secure that people generally adhere to these set customs and values.