(Psychological Literacy)
Adam Blatner, M.D.

(This is the fifth lecture of this 6-lecture module on self-awareness that is part of a longer series on Psychological Literacy, offered to the Senior University Georgetown lifelong learning program, for its Fall 2009 program. Eventually, more of the series will be posted on this website. This fifth lecture will be given on October 26, 2009 (Re-posted October 22, 2009)
This series of lectures will include: 1. An orientation to the process of self-awareness.  2. Motivations and Ideals   3. Wiser and More Foolish Coping Maneuvers   4. Body Cues, Temperament & Other Elements of Individuality    5. (This Lecture): Social Connectedness and Preferences         6. Spirituality. Meaning, Inspiration, Conclusion

Sometimes the obvious is not so obvious: Our psychology and culture have come to over-value individuality. I appreciate moderate value going in this way, but it should not blind us to the equally real way humans are social animals, embedded in a variety of systems--interpersonal, family, small and larger group, socio-cultural, language, and so forth. See webpages about our social embeddedness and the collective to illustrate this.

Since self is constructed largely through the mental act of identification, the affirmation that this is part of myself, our loyalties and affiliations become part of our self-awareness. These are not absolute, either-or associations. You can feel you're an American, for example, but how much you support the current national government's policies can vary.

It is worthwhile to recognize these shifts in loyalty. When unconscious, such shifts can lead to feelings of being betrayed, cast adrift, or the grief of abandonment. Without appreciating the idea of our social connectedness, people can mis-identify the feelings generated as anxiety or depression. A key point to be emphasized, by the way, is that culture often invites us to not make a clear identification of the actual source of distress, because certain thoughts are taboo, they are, as discussed in the 3rd lecture, "denied."

From the "I" to the "We".

Our view of nature is biased by our instruments for knowing it—or the lack of such instruments. The cosmos was smaller before telescopes and microscopes. In psychology the field of study began more with what was accessible to study, namely, the individual. And that, like the problem of seeing a micro-organism under a microscope without distorting what is seen, requires a continual evolution of theory and technique. The point is that for the first seventy-five or more years, psychology dipped into a tendency to specialize, compartmentalize, and in the sense to be discussed today, to overly focus on the individual. This distorts the picture, though, because people are indeed individuals, and also equally they are social beings, networks. Said more strongly, “I” am as much my relationships with others, with this group, with other groups, with my larger culture, as I am whatever is bounded by my skin. So a shift of frame, of how we define “self,” is in order.

The theme today is that the more you become aware of the fantastic complexity of how you relate to others on multiple levels the more you’ll have the wherewithal to be self-aware.

Role as a Unit

I’ve been a proponent of role theory as a practical approach. It didn’t work well because the concept can’t be pinned down, neatly defined, and thus it resists precise measurement. That makes it hart to do ordinary types of research, so it isn’t welcome in academia, which depends on the illusion that any “-ology” must be scientific. But role is almost by definition a multi-level concept, and for our purposes of fostering self-awareness or serving as a practical unit for psychological literacy, it’s great.

What I mean by multi-level is this. You play many roles—I estimate that an average person plays around 20 major roles, 100 minor roles, and a thousand transient roles; and the major and some minor roles often have component roles and sub-component roles. Moreover, these roles operate at different levels—psychosomatic, intrapsychic, interpersonal, group, larger cultural roles, and in-between. (Other papers on aspects of roles and applied role theory can be found on the papers on this website.)

Psychosomatic roles reflect the way we learn to do our body, our habits of sleeping, napping, awakening, defecating, urinating, eating, burping, and so forth, are culture-bound, affected by individual temperament, and so forth. Much of sickness is partly psycho-somatic, reflecting chronic patterns of tension, excitement, demoralization, and so forth.

Intra-psychic roles are all the little voices inside your head, and there can be scores of them.

Interpersonal involve the various roles you play with major others and some transient others.

Group roles, similarly, are more noticeable when you’re in clubs, organizations, etc. How you act in your marriage may or may not take the same role you play in your club. Also, since we affiliate with a variety of groups—work, lodge, extended family, club, church, political party, etc.— these networks become important elements of identity—of your sense of who you are, your success or lack of it—much is in reference to groups.

There are several levels of larger group contexts—the groups where folks know your name, those where they vaguely recognize your face, those where these elements are less important, the group or organization is that large, but you believe in what it’s trying to do, its values or goals, and so forth. Speakers of the same language, people who unite under the same flag in spite of regional differences—all these can become very relevant—or less relevant—depending on circumstances and personal life choices.

So I just want to sensitize you to the complexity of the way you are embedded socially. It’s more than just being part of a tribe. Within many groups there is a division of not only official role but also unofficial role. The socializing hostess role may be played by someone who has little official status.

So this could lead to an extended class in social psychology, but for our purposes it suffices to just lay the groundwork: We’re social, it’s complex, and role is a good way to work with our understanding.


It’s not well recognized even yet in sociology and social psychology, but the degree with which you click with someone, you feel more comfortable or more unsettled, is an important variable. In my psychiatric training I came upon psychodrama, as some of you know, but that approach is only the opening to something else: The fellow who invented this method of therapeutic role playing, Dr. Jacob L. Moreno (1889-1974), was also someone who thought about philosophy and psychology in various ways—and these can be used in life quite apart from any psychodrama or action techniques. One of these approaches he called sociometry, which was based on the idea that we could measure or at least assess the strength of our sense of attraction to or repulsion from others in groups and relationships.

I’ve found the explorations of the nature of rapport—Moreno called it “tele” (pronounced taylay)—to be enormously rich, deep, and complex.

First of all, it’s not simply a matter of liking or disliking. Oh, that occurs, but in most relationships feelings are more subtle and mixed. A might prefer to play with B in role X but in role Y, A might prefer to be with C. This whole issue isn’t just liking or disliking, but a realistic assessment of others skills, interests, and compatibilities. Well, there are also a fair number of unrealistic attitudes and expectations that crop up, but that’s part of what makes this approach so complicated.

For us, though, there is an exercise that we can do that will warm us up to the process. It’s called the social network diagram and it involves just doing a mental snapshot of us surrounded by all the people and sometimes non-people that are most relevant to your life. Put yourself at the center and position little diagrammatic figures—usually triangles for men and circles for women, and then draw lines that portray the quality of your feelings for each individual and your perception of how they feel towards you.

I actually used this technique in my clinical work, because I found that it was a better way to find out how a person experienced his or her own life than if I had asked those weird questions that psychiatrists are supposed to ask. I wiggle those in indirectly, but the main thing is to not treat the patient as a specimen, but to join with patients or clients in helping them to look at their own lives. It built a better therapeutic alliance and demystified the process considerably.

Talking about these things was not easy. So many of these relationships are problematical—we fear that we might be hurt by knowing the truth, and we fear hurting other people’s feelings or feeling hurt ourselves.

Interestingly, this degree of interpersonal vulnerability is the product of the whole reality of social psychology not being talked about and operating, like sex or conflict, at the margins of ordinary discourse. It is laced with misunderstanding and ignorance.

Some Developmental Considerations

Let’s look at some simple truths about relations:

First, young people—kids and early teens—tend to think simplistically about relations. You like or don’t like, and not being liked is always because the one not liked deserves it. Therefore, if you aren’t liked by everyone, there must be something wrong with you. You should feel ashamed. All this is crazy. Well, no, there are a few germs of truth here and there, but they are magnified, overgeneralized.

The problem is that the older we grow the more we become differentiated in our interests. This one gets more into sports and that one into drama. People begin to have different tastes, different things that are fun to do. By mid-high school—and it continues to diverge with age—some kids like certain kinds of party-ing and other kids really don’t. Some like to do one activity and others prefer some other types of fun. As a result, I can not be very interested in you insofar as you are interested in, say, home decorating.

Now the role thing comes in: On the other hand, I may be very interested in the fact that in another role you also are interested in something I am very much interested in. There can be ten or twelve dimensions in play in the teen years and beyond. Is there sexual attraction? Am I available and wanting such a relationship? What about romance? What about someone with whom I can study for the science exam—it might not be the same person. Or someone to join me on a team, or go to the movie with—and even there, I might have different friends with whom I want to see different kinds of movies!   Role based.

So the point here in your becoming self-aware is that you’ll notice that you have mixed feelings about a lot of people, and the idea of role can in many cases bring some clarity to those confusions: You do like Joe for this role, if that were to come up, but not for that role.

Now, let’s build on this: I’ve become aware that a large number of people, the majority of people, don’t find me entertaining or interesting. I used to intuitively sense this and was hurt, it diminished my self-esteem, I became more hesitant. Gradually, I learned—over decades rather than years—I was in a number of ways a late bloomer—that it was okay. Most people don’t like most people. They like some people, their kind of people, but not not-their kind of people. Hey, I realized that I am not interested in most people and that was okay. We had nothing much in common.

Now in other roles I could be kind, courteous, appreciative, and within the context of certain role performances, even friendly. The way a dental hygienist works could lead to pleasant conversation, positive feelings. This in no way diminishes the dynamics of one of these transient roles—positive strokes are happening—and I’ll talk more about that later. But I don’t have to base my self-esteem on whether or not this happens with everyone. Sometimes we just don’t click, or even feel some wariness, some weird vibes—and the other person may not have done anything wrong.

Negative Tele

Let me say this about negative rapport. It happens. It doesn’t have to mean that you or the other person has any fault. No one need be blamed. I figure that most people have a distinctly negative rapport reaction to maybe 4.4% of the population. (Remember, I just make up numbers, but they do hint at the general proportion.) And there are mildly negative levels of tele with another 21%. I’ve learned that efforts to be friendly with such folks tend to backfire. Best to let them be, treat them with courtesy, and special efforts at tact.

Two corollaries: You don’t have to feel that you’ve done something wrong or that you are deficient when this dynamic crops up. You can check it out with others—maybe it is true that you are doing something creepy—but maybe not. Secondly, you don’t have to justify to yourself that it’s okay not to be able to warm up to Bill or Sally—you don’t have to build a case, rationalize your negative rapport—because when people do that, in order to avoid feeling guilty, they create more negativity than is called for. They tend to gossip or exaggerate. And the other person didn’t really do anything wrong—you two just didn’t click. No blame.

So that’s an interesting awareness to watch out for—what happens when non-clicking happens.

Very Positive Tele

Now the other extreme is interesting also. What happens when there’s very positive tele is that people tend to be attracted to each other, become friends or get married. But it’s not that simple. People can have very positive tele in some roles yet be incompatible in others.

Marriage requires about, oh, twenty or thirty-ish complementary roles, and it can easily tolerate a quarter of those roles not really being complementary—and some can even be incompatible. A fair number of marriages operate at more of a fifty-fifty level, but below that they become vulnerable in a variety of ways.

Occasionally, people feel very attracted to someone who is socially unavailable. Either one or both are married or there are other seemingly near-insuperable difficulties. This is the stuff that country western songs are made of. One person sings, “You came along one promise too late.” Another song I recently heard on the radio says that I was only a hundred miles away coming home to you but I met this woman and now I am with her not you.”  Johnny Cash sings, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.”  It is possible to know that there will be strong attractions outside of marriage—especially if you’re a celebrity—but that knowledge can also lead to a strong resolve not to give into temptation.

The problem in our culture is that there’s this myth that if a marriage is happy there won’t be those occasions for temptation. That’s a denial of the statistical distribution of positive rapport. You don’t have to give into temptation; and you’re not being inauthentic if you don’t, because it well might be that temptation only speaks to one or a few role dimensions and whoever you go off with to have an affair would in fact be incompatible on many or most other role dimensions. But this stuff doesn’t get talked about, and the opposite myths are prevalent. If I feel it it must be real, important, so I have to do it. The foolishness is not just personal, but also a product of widespread social myths—almost common sense that is really nonsense.

So this domain is also part of being aware: Postive and negative rapport happen.


Another aspect of self-awareness is the assessment of your level of being stroked, of getting strokes. This is sort of like having them check your oil level back in the olden days when they did this every time you got your gas tank filled, back when there were actual service station attendants, before self-service. Whoo, long time ago. Anyway, we have our own need to keep stoked up—stroked up—and it works like this.

Let’s imagine that a normal person—as if there were such a thing—needs about, say, a hundred strokes a day. A stroke is a message of recognition, sent and received and registered in consciousness and the body, that someone out there knows you, cares about you, likes you. There are a variety of stroke types.

An interesting sub-type is the negative stroke. Claude Steiner called the positive strokes “warm fuzzies,” – and the negative “strokes” “cold pricklies”—and his point is that negative strokes will be sought if there are no positive strokes available. Say it another way, being ignored is worse than being hated. Kids will seek scolding and the negative attention rather than tolerate the state of being in severe stroke deficit.

Now the interesting thing is to consider that many if not most people in our culture may be able to survive at a low stroke level, but they don’t really blossom. Some folks live with chronic sleep deficit, too, and low grade nutritional deficiencies. The point is not to address the extremes—those in solitary confinement with way too few strokes. And there’s a problem with living as a celebrity with too many strokes, too, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. The point here is to invite you to consider that you could increase the variety and quality and number of strokes coming your way if you recognize there is such a thing. It’s like knowing that there are certain vitamins and minerals and foods that have them and foods that don’t.


The last point I want to make is that you may not realize how little you show your cards, how little you give others a chance to enjoy and relate to you at the level and about the things that you want them to relate to you for.

There are a couple of sub-points here: Some of you get strokes for actions and duties that you do, and to a variable degree like or don’t like doing, but interestingly these strokes don’t get into your heart very deeply. There are roles we play as social functionaries and some don’t feel that close to our secret and favorite identities. So say you cook, you love to cook, and you love for people to enjoy your cooking, and you are able to play this role out to your heart’s content. All a source of good strokes. But each of these variables can, well, vary: Some cook well, it’s appreciated, but the person doesn’t much enjoy it and would really rather be doing something else. Some know they cook well and like it okay but it’s not really what they secretly want to be known for.

In the movie Picnic with Bill Holden and Kim Novack, or the play before that, the heroine was beautiful, and her fiancee kept admiring it, and she found that vaguely annoying. When the stranger played by Bill Holden came to town, she was taken with him because he needed her—the role of someone needing her, of feeling needed, struck deep. Kim knew she was pretty, but prettiness, though it mattered to other girls who weren’t, had become old hat, just a superficial frame.

Some of you may have others in your social network who like you for what you do well but it’s not a core value to you. It may have been at one time, or maybe never was much valued. But what counts is that you secretly love or do or are something that many or most others hardly know.

Just knowing this kind of thing happens can be helpful: Does it apply to you? What if let your little light shine speaks to a hundred kinds of light. Some of these lights are superficial, they’re nice, they involve being nice, but they don’t feel close to you. Some of these lights are closer to your deep identity and you’d like to meet some folks who really see you, hear you, appreciate these dimensions of yourself.

Now here’s the pay-off: If you can identify those kinds of things and then dare to put it in the front window, so to speak; tell others the way you want to be recognized; the kinds of things that you want strokes for; then maybe you’ll get more of what you want.

If you don’t want to be seen as conceited or narcissistic or bragging or vain and you are consequently overshooting in the direction of being modest to the point of putting your shining light under a basket—well, the metaphor says it all.

With this idea more established in your consciousness, there are many obstacles and avenues and techniques to get yourself the kinds of nourishing strokes that will help you blossom more. Knowing that this dynamic exists—which is equivalent to Sailing Captains knowing there’s such a thing as Vitamin C deficiency that causes scurvy—can lead you to maintain your own psycho-social health.

Giving Strokes

It doesn’t need to be flattery. Just letting others know they exist in your consciousness is a powerful stroke. Just let others know you think about them. An occasional outreach. I know you’re busy, and so is everyone. Value just a little more using the time you’d take to watch television to do some kind of outreach. Remember the exercise I did last week: Imagine how you’d feel if an old friend called you from what seemed to be out of the blue. Hello, I’ve just been thinking about you, about us, about what we’ve shared. I’ve been wondering how you’re doing, what you’re into now.  Imagine a parent doing this once a month on average during your teen and young adult years, or a sibling. How would it make you feel? Imagine you had that kind of power — and it is power!— to make others feel good.

So I’ll close with one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite simple songs that some of you heard when raising your kids—from Sesame Street:: “Sing, sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong, (and in the second verse), sing the love there could be.  I like that: the Love there Could Be. I think this exercise of outreach is the basic nutrient for the planet. 

I’ll take questions.