The Universal Language of Human Relationships

Psychology of Human relationships
Any relationship we enter into occupies our mind and uses our energy. This includes our relationship with things. The things we own require attention — from basic maintenance like a car or a house, to needing to be put away after use or a decision of whether to keep or toss.

The things we own own us as it takes energy to deal with them and unless we change our relationship with the stuff we own, it will end up owning us. In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo says we should surround ourselves only with thins that “spark joy.”  The KonMari Method is a category-by-category system that provides detailed guidance for determining which items in our house “spark joy” and want to keep.

If we think it's hard to understand how a relationship with things works, it is harder still to learn the mechanisms underscoring human relationships. Understanding ourselves is complex enough. Expanding to learning about human communication — for example, emotional expression and non verbal communication like physical contact — is sometimes a lifelong pursuit.

Applying the energy concept to relationships

Psychologist and professor Toru Sato has written a fascinating book about the psychology of human relationships, consciousness, and development The Ever-Transcending Spirit. In the book, he lists the patterns we follow when stealing energy from others:

  • high maintenance / high expectations — for example, expecting others to be the way we want them regardless of how that  person feels
  • interrogation / criticism — as this  makes the self feel better than the other
  • intimidation / anger 
  • self-pity / guilt trip
  • buttering up (for example, the Boss)
  • aloofness / charisma — making others interested in the self by holding out information
  • chainchatting — for example, speaking incessantly without listening to others
  • “yes, I know but…” — asking for suggestions and advice, then responding by saying the suggestion was not what they were looking for; the purpose of the exchange being to receive attention
  • passive aggression — doing things primarily to cause an emotional reaction
  • one-upmanship — making the other feel inadequate
  • avoidance — as a protective mechanism for the energy we have

“When we are paying attention to others,” he says, “we are giving energy.” Sato goes on to explain that the giving and receiving is part of what we try to figure out as we develop relationships.

Energy Flow Among People_Toru Sato

Some people are bothered by this stealing of energy, others aren't. The reason why, says Sato, is that the giving and receiving is more a matter of perception than reality. Using what he calls “the internal conflict model,” he says:

When things are going our way, we are comfortable. When things do not go the way we want to, we feel discomfort. All of this has to do with what we desire (or need) and what has, is, or could happen. When what we desire (or need) matches what has, is, or could happen, we feel comfortable. When what we desire (or need) does not match what has, is, or could happen, we feel anxiety or some sort of discomfort.

If I feel upset that a bully took my lunch money last week, what I desire (to keep my lunch money) does not match what happened (the bully took my lunch money). Therefore I feel discomfort. On the other hand, if I was able to keep my lunch money, what I desire would match what happened and I would feel fine.

If I feel uncomfortable because my friend is driving his car recklessly, what I desire (my friend to drive safely) does not match what is happening (my friend is driving recklessly).

If I am worried about my next test, what I desire (to do well on the test) does not match what I think could happen (to do poorly on the test.)

We act to make what we want and what we think could happen match. When that doesn't happen, we repress or deny it to manage our anxiety or do our best to make our desires come true. There is another option. Says Sato:

The other way to manage anxiety is to do exactly the opposite. We can make what has, is, or could happen win over our desires. We can let go of our desires and just accept what has happened, what is happening, or what could happen without any resistance. Although this may be difficult to do in many circumstances, it may be more adaptive in some situations than trying to take control. We all know that being overly controlling can sometimes cause problems. Sometimes letting things (i.e., our desires) go is a much easier way to deal with our internal conflict than to take control.

Our choice becomes letting our desires control us, or letting them go. This example relates to the give and take of relationships because “When we have a relationship of giving and taking with someone, the relationship we are experiencing is not directly with that person,” says Sato, it is in our mind. “The conflict is between my desires and what the other person did, does, or could do (i.e. what is, has, or could happen.)”

Learning the process of letting go

Internal conflict is thus the root of human unhappiness. But there is a problem with trying to eliminate it — because according to Sato in order to feel any emotional arousal, we must be experiencing internal conflict. Says Sato:

The internal conflict model allows us to explain why forgiveness set ourselves and not only other people free. When we cannot forgive someone, we are refusing to let go of our desires. We are refusing to let go of what we wanted the other person to do or not to do.
Therefore, we are experiencing internal conflict when we cannot forgive someone. If we let go of our desire, we can naturally accept what the other person did or did not do. In other words, letting go of our desires allows us to forgive. This is why many people say that we must forgive more for ourselves than for the other person. When we forgive, we set ourselves free from our own internal conflict.
Sato goes on to describe how we develop attachment from early childhood physical strokes to the desire and need for attention and respect as ego strokes later in life. Good communication with children and parents or caretakers both giving and taking equally is the key to optimal development. He says:

the two most common ways we develop insecurities are: (a) insufficient care of our basic needs, and (b) experiences of having energy stolen from us.

Regardless of what we think causes our anxiety […] Insecurities and the Anxiety that it causes are at the root of all interpersonal conflicts.

This is a profound statement that merits some thinking on our part. Sato goes on to provide some interesting visual analogies for understanding the giving and taking of energy in two individuals as well as learning how we develop self-group identity with people with a common desire. In this case, he says, “we both feel energized not because we are receiving energy from each other, but because we change our perception of what our energy is.” 

Various levels of group identity Toru Sato
When he describes the process of developing self-system Sato says it implies that learning and growth is a constant process of rebuilding our self-system, and that “each time the self-system takes a step in its development, it develops into something that transcends but includes the previous self-system.” This translates in us becoming more comfortable with a broader range of situations and experiences.

Applying the self-system to relationships

The self-system consists of a memory of all experiences and how to respond to them. Sato says:
it can be applied to interpersonal experiences. If we apply it to interpersonal experiences, the self-system is our understanding of how we deal with a variety of people in a variety of situations so that our energy level is maintained.
Furthermore, taking energy from others can be considered as an act of influencing and causing others to modify their self-systems. In contrast, giving energy to others can be considered as an act of allowing others to influence and modify our self-system.
This is why when we care for someone, we end up forming a strong attachment to that person. For example, a child, or an ill parent or friend, but also a stranger.
If we apply this same concept to our internal experiences, we realize that self-esteem is a reflection of how large our comfort zone is, of how much our self-system can accommodate. Because we often feel our self-system is not developed enough to deal with many of the situations we encounter in our lives, we feel high levels of anxiety. Experience helps us develop into more sophisticated systems. The more experience, the more developed our self-esteem.
“Self-confidence is very similar to self-esteem,” says Sato. Although it is often conceptualized as situation-specific rather than global personality characteristic. Examples of self-confidence are when we know what to pay attention to and what to ignore to respond to a situation.
We may lose confidence in new situations if we have no set patterns to respond to it. On the other end of the spectrum, when we operate solely within the confines of our self-system — when we do not need to stretch beyond them — we get bored and feel held back in our growth. Which is why some level of internal conflict is useful.
Further, there is a third way to deal with internal conflict. Not surprisingly, this is the middle of the road. Sato says:
It is to stop perceiving the situation as, “my desire versus what has, is, or could happen” and making our desires equal to what has, is, or could happen. To do this, we need to simultaneously accept and act upon what is happening.
When athletes and artists talk about being in “The Zone,” this is what is happening. This aligns with Cal Newport's definition of deep work:

Cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

And reminds us of the concept Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi articulated in Flow; we find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.” People who learn to navigate the fine line between bored and extremely challenged are also happier and have the ability to stick with the training and work required to become very good at their chosen field.

Sato says in interpersonal experiences, this is when people feel they are on the same wavelength. He then goes on to say that those who have the ability to break overwhelming things into smaller, manageable steps understand the essence of mindful living. His definition of human communication:
Communication is a continuous process of breaking down and rebuilding our self-system. People change. People's circumstances change. People's desires change. In order to keep any relationship working, we need to be constantly open to those changes and adjust accordingly each moment we interact.
The Ever-Transcending Spirit is filled with peals of wisdom and practical applications flowing from the implications of understanding our nature and universal language of relating — with self and others, one on one, in groups, and to the broader social system. The business applications are many. For example, the fall in love and now I know you effects and what they create.
[image from book cover]

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