Whatever hits the heart is here.
Continuing my theme of the hybrid SELF that forms when people interact: The third mind. I’m not trying to create the idea of some kind of mystical entity. The third mind is simply a lens or filter for understanding ourselves.
There is no real “You”.
“Um, I’m right here.”
“Which you are you?”
Every person you know and love has a bond with you like a chemical signature. You think you visit them but you don’t. You visit US. You are a different you with Tom and Petra and Janine. When you visit Janine you think you are seeing her, but you are seeing US.
You know that great way you have fun with her, cooking together and joking around? It isn’t exactly like that with anyone else. That isn’t you and it isn’t her. That’s the third mind. The US. The thing is, your friendship isn’t you and her. It’s what she brings out in you and what you bring out in her. Your friendship is the magic spot where those unique things overlap. This is really reminiscent of the Observer Effect in physics. You can’t study the thing without influencing and effecting it. There is no abstract, pure Janine. You can only know her the way she is when you are looking at her. She can only know you the way you are when she looks at you.
You get together with Janine and your mutual friend Petra. You don’t really know the way Janine is with Petra. You know how Janine is with YOU and Petra. You are standing there with Janine before Petra comes inside. You make a funny literary reference and she laughs and reminds you to keep thinking about that thing you talked about earlier. Why? Because when Petra is part of this molecule the sense of humor is different, maybe earthier, and you’d never really bring up that sort of serious thing for discussion because it would be the wrong kind of discussion. You guys LOVE Petra, you love being together. It’s wonderful, but it’s wonderful in a different way. So you tidied up business with the You and Janine molecule before the well understood transition into the 3 of you molecule.
The personality “You” was evoked in a unique way with one other person and then in another unique way only possible with that exact combination of the three of you. And if you leave, Petra and Janine have a different relationship. If you let yourself ride this idea it’s a hoot because there is no real you, there’s just what can be brought out of you by different people. And since the same is true for them there’s no real anybody anywhere. There are only the unique creations of relationships. In “The Four Loves” C.S. Lewis wrote a beautiful thought on our subject which I have to paraphrase here. Talking about the death of a friend: “If Jim dies I don’t just lose my unique friendship with Jim, I lose the way Jim used to laugh at Robert’s jokes.”
Friendship can be a lovely, lifetime thing in many cases because there is this enjoyable facet of you that you only get be in their company and they evidently have their own version of that joy. One note and another note being played at the same time are not those notes. They are a chord. And the easy, warm cruising of friendships across time is helped by its episodic nature, you don’t ALWAYS have to be that expression of yourself but you can return to it…like an old friend.
You might argue that the real you is who you are when you are alone but you are wrong, and stop being so argumentative!
Even all by yourself, the “You” experience is context-based and evoked by circumstances. It’s actually rather limited. You can’t be that warm, loving guy or the funny guy or the good listening guy. In some ways being alone is sitting with all the things you can’t be. Being in no external relationship reveals a kind of spartan, stripped-down you, but if you are alone for 10 days, I bet you spent time with 4 or 5 different versions of you.
For creative types (and introverts), there can be a special and productive relationship to being alone. A dedicated artist in any field isn’t usually alone because they have built a substantial relationship with the work. The discipline and focus centered on external results provokes, frustrates, and inspires in a way equal to any human company. But it’s still a selective filter that isn’t real in any other situation.
The principles of the third mind are laid out simply above and they don’t change with strangers or those closest to us. What changes is the impact or “side effects”.
Romantic love adds an element that only happens in its domain. Limerence. That dazzling infatuation which when reciprocated turns the third mind into a nearly visible glittering ball between the two people. This is where the third mind transforms into a different entity, almost literally an entity pulling intense emotions and hormones to the surface from the couple. It grows larger and practically seals the lovers inside. Of course, this is the human mating dance. This is the REAL honeymoon, a time of being swept up in something huge and electric and magical. When people look back on this phase, the third mind can seem like anything from a horrible deception to a lost golden age. If it does the job nature intends, a family follows.
With family relationships, we are playing with forces that help to define us. Mom and Dad are together in a tight pair bond, founded in romantic love. When baby makes three there’s a deep change in the orientation of the parents. Very much a team but a team that doesn’t have a lot of hot sex anymore and a team embarked on a shakedown cruise with a new person. Before the baby is old enough to a political player in the family there’s this period of adjustment to the altered definition of the pair bond. “We are now people who discuss what poop looked like.” This can also be a time where new facets of self come up in Mom and Dad because parenting builds a new floor onto the edifice of YOU. Your way of relating to the kid becomes a bit of new wild card. It’s natural and fine for Mom and Dad to be on somewhat different pages about parenting. But what it does here can be an alteration of the third mind in a way that adds stressors and subtly distances them. It only deepens when the child is a distinct personality, becoming triangulated and heating up any of those parenting issues. At times each feel parent will feel double teamed or manipulated and new kinks in the flow develop. Whatever the couple’s third mind started as it has morphed and tilted. Not necessarily in a terrible way, but forever. There is no going back. And something strange starts to happen here. It can feel like the power of this mind exerts such pressure that you begin to actually possess the characteristics projected onto you. As if the third begins to alter and edit you often in ways that are not pleasant. If people have a common complaint about family it’s probably this: The weird way you can’t help either becoming a certain person around them or putting all your energy into resisting it.
Children grow up with the family mind, a sort of interactive group sense of self: A growth medium made up of ourselves and a variety of subjective, overlapping reactions to us.
God knows there are lovely, happy, and vital marriages out there. And where they exist they probably have a rare relationship where the couple feels a great ongoing enjoyment with what gets brought out of them into the world by the other. This mutual bringing forth: “I love her and I love who I am when I’m with her.”
It’s easy to imagine the reasons things that can become stultifying and even miserable in some marriages. First, unlike friendship, this relationship has no easy come and go. It is your default and almost fulltime existence So it’s more serious from the start but also, people change. Especially as they grow up through their 20s and 30s and 40s. You could hardly help and nor should you, being different after all that. But that means that the unique signature of your personalities as they evoked each other when you married is gone. Perhaps not wholly but substantially. Even without inner change over time, the signature shifts as people reveal their more intransigent sides, as issues become wearisome and people become resigned.
But finally, there’s this: It becomes deadening when you only get to be one version of you year after year. Especially if that version of you is largely defined by a long history of ups and downs, tensions and compromises. Inside ourselves we know we are a 360-degree personality and this arrangement lets you express only a familiar, comforting, reliable constellation of all the possible YOUs for the sake of another person’s security and happiness.
It’s no wonder people struggle. There’s this tremendous investment in a situation that feels gradually less like home because you aren’t really getting to be yourself there or at least the version of you that you’d like to be. And fixing a marriage that feels very stuck is so challenging because even the medium for discussion can only be within the petrified and weary third mind.
There is no one real YOU, there are thousands.
Mental health is an area where the suffering is frequently increased by shame. Many people who struggle with anxiety or depression or ADHD develop a sort of secret life where they “pass for normal” daily while feeling like simply maintaining is a struggle. In many cases, this fear of exposure is founded in reality, whether the fear is about social acceptance or maintaining employment. There’s a lot at stake for people who are already facing big challenges and announcing to the world that you might be a little weak and vulnerable is risking much for very nebulous gain.
There has been a thaw over the last few decades in public acceptance where it has truly become less of a stigma and better understood. But these improvements are far from universal and I think it’s deep in the human character to want to appear strong. Perhaps it’s even a need to feel strong. Psychologically it’s easy to imagine that “coming out” to others, especially when feeling overwhelmed would be a terrible humiliation. The worst thing would be to have the external world completely reflect your inner struggle and support the idea that you are “damaged goods”. In this light, not telling others could be in a sense, healthy. The problem is that this denial and hiding is very isolating and it often extends to family and friends. The person who can afford it least is sunk into a very lonely secret struggle.
It’s not that I think my writing or perspective is essential to anyone but I would like to raise my hand as one more person daylighting the reality of the struggle. I have ADHD and anxiety and exist somewhere in the gray zone of the autism spectrum. In my youth, I suffered from periodic crippling depression starting around age 6. I’ve learned some hard lessons about it and have managed to stay out of its grip for over 20 years. But it is a permanent vulnerability, I have to be watchful and proactive. I am not a mental health professional and I am not claiming universal accuracy in my characterization of depression, but for the kind I had and for the kind I have seen in many friends over the years I think I have something to say worth hearing.