As newborn babies, we rely on our parents’ ability and willingness to provide for us. We’re at their mercy. All children come into this world equipped with the social skills needed to secure the shelter and safety they need for their survival. A baby’s silky skin communicates it needs gentle touches. Babies’ cries signal hurt, danger, hunger or loneliness. Children have real needs and parents must find ways to meet them. In turn, children quickly learn to psychologically reward their parents by mimicking their facial expressions, and by offering smiles and giggles. Bluntly speaking, we manipulate them, though for the sake of humanity’s continued existence we have no other choice. We do as adults. In adulthood, we can either choose to manipulate others for our personal gain or learn to get what we want from life through self-directed action.
Our individual ability to get what we really want from life can serve as one way to measure what we call freedom. This definition hints that the freedom of one may come at the expense of another. We live in a dog-eat-dog world where life preys on other life. Human beings generally don’t eat each other, but the financial success of one ‘gifted’ stockbroker often comes at great losses to less fortunate speculators. Like stock markets, civilized societies codified and institutionalized the competition for better lives.
Children are innocent and deserve to be loved unconditionally, but more than through self-directed action, we picked up from early childhood experiences that it is easier to get what we want from life when we manipulate others. This manipulation no longer merely serves our basic needs, but the exploitation of those around us for personal gain and self-aggrandizement, for narcissistic attention and hedonistic pleasure. “We can never have enough of what we do not really need,” wrote American longshoreman and philosopher Eric Hoffer.
As children, most men learn to manipulate others from manipulating their mothers. The experience leaves a permanent psychological impression. Perhaps it explains why adult men can feel entitled to women’s subservience, a psychological remnant from their nursing mothers that attended to their childhood needs. For women, it is more complicated. Girls more frequently wave their fathers goodbye when they have to go to work in the morning, even in feminist societies. Whatever the case may be, absent fathers leave their daughters with no one to manipulate other than the very person they psychologically identify with — their mothers. Girls have a harder time getting what they want from their less available fathers than boys do from their more reliable mothers.
Both men and women never forget their childhood lessons. We can easily observe manipulation whenever two or more people meet. The sly salesman sells goods and services people don’t really need, to customers he despises, yet his financial successes leaving him frustrated why nobody will give him the genuine recognition he really seeks. The office manager deceives herself into thinking that she found her passion, while she spends her days plotting new ways to ‘motivate’ her subordinates to donate more of their productivity to corporate profits.
Learning to manipulate our parents came at a cost because our parents, in turn, convinced us that we had to be ‘good boys’ and ‘pretty girls’ to deserve their attention. We paid for our survival by giving up our right to unconditional love. In our earliest attempts to get what we want from life, we had to adopt a false self-image. We play smart to impress our intellectual parents. We take up sports we don’t really like to play out of fear of disappointing athletic mothers and fathers. In adulthood, this socially desirable image frustrates even our best attempts at living a fulfilling life, because we can never get enough recognition for who we are not.
As long as we keep deceiving ourselves, the pursuit of happiness can only bring more unhappiness. The slavery of a false self-image leads to self-destruction. What we really need is unconditional positive regard for our true selves. This we can only achieve when we stop being who we are not. Then we cease to manipulate others for artificial satisfaction. We return to our true selves and find that the freedom we look for lies within, in confident, self-directed action.