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The dance of intimacy and autonomy

little tabby kitten Scottish touching mother catLove tends to join and hate to separate, but joining is not the same as love, and separation is not hatred. Sometimes the most loving thing a person can do is take a step back: that’s distance in the service of attachment. And it’s not loving to join in invasive or smothering ways. Most people want both closeness and independence. Intimacy and autonomy in all their forms: your course in life is shaped by how well you regulate their dance in your mind, and their expression in your relationships.

Harms can be done to yourself and others in the name of autonomy and intimacy, so it’s important to bring their dynamics into the sphere of your virtue. For example, Martin Buber described three types of relationships:

  • I-Thou – When I relate to you with respect as an independent being (like a dear friend)
  • I-It – When I treat you as a means to my ends (like, perhaps, an operator you’re calling for a phone number)
  • It-It – When you and I are just bodies in space (like strangers in an elevator)

We mistreat others by making them an “It” to our “I.” You know what that feels like on the receiving end: like you are being seduced, pitched, or used. Not good. It’s not uncommon to treat people as “Its” in order to feel close to them, such as by compelling their attention, making them feel bad for wanting their own space, manipulating their affection, not respecting their boundaries, or in the extreme, some kinds of sexual abuse. And certainly common to treat people as “Its” to make it easier to act freely: examples include dumping negative emotions without caring about the impacts, trampling on people to get ahead, or simply cutting in line.

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About Rick Hanson PhD

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Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. He has several audio programs and his free Just One Thing newsletter has over 100,000 subscribers.

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