Objectification is when we use another person as a way to fill our needs. This isn’t the interaction with others that happens all the time. We are lonely, call a friend and feel better just by feeling understood. They do the same.
Mutuality is missing when we objectify someone. They have a habit of calling us late at night and talk at us for two hours even when they know we have to get up early. They use us as a way to let off steam without caring that they leave us all stirred up. We all do this to some extent. Objectification is related to the profound disconnection from ourselves and others that is so pervasive in our culture. Even with good intentions, we don’t see the impact because we aren’t “home”.
Using others to fill our needs comes in many forms, many levels of intensity, and is largely unconscious in most people. We dehumanize people and turn them into an object. An example is that using a person’s body sexually would not be satisfying to someone who is connected to their own humanity and that of others. Coercion and force just don’t feel right. We make a bid for connection and when it’s not picked up, we respect that the other person wants something different from what we want. We leave it there.
What do we do when we need a person to be someone they are not? Children are inherently self-centered and typically don’t consider the needs of parents. The problem is that as adults when our needs are not being met, we might still pressure others into sacrificing their own life and happiness to serve us. This can be from entitlement, like men who are conditioned to believe women are there to help them or to be used by them. It is often from desperation and a lack of emotional maturity.
Objectification can be obvious or subtle, in our awareness or unconscious, like when it doesn’t even occur to us to consider the humanity and experience of a person of a different race, gender, identity or economic status. We are highly influenced by cultural programming. We also have a need to belong and to have status.
A child needs parents who can provide consistent reliable attachment and protection. A woman needs to be seen as a person, not a set of boobs. We need our friends to be there for us when we’re in distress. When we feel romantic love, we need them to love us back! We are let down all the time. What do we do then?
My mom was of a generation of women who were pressured back into the home after the end of World War Two. She was smart and had a solid work ethic. She would have been so much happier as a woman in business. She worked hard at being a good wife and mother and I benefitted from growing up in a home with good food, secure shelter, and no violence or addiction.
What I didn’t have was emotional connection. In those days therapy was considered shameful. Mom grew up on a farm and I remember her scorning people who were “navel gazers”, predicting they would starve in the winter if they spent their time in the summer navel gazing instead of working. Shaming was (and still is) a common way to push people, especially children, into behaving a certain way so they don’t bring disgrace to the family.
It’s not fair to retroactively judge previous generations. People then didn’t have access to the abundance of self-help and psychology books, podcasts and therapists we have now. Many parents were uncomfortable talking about feelings and emotion. Other people struggled with mental illness, addiction or abusive partners. Even people who are fairly stable are often not able to cope well with the pressures and demands of family life, now and then.
About ten years before she died, I stopped pushing my mom to give me what she could not. She wasn’t the flowery “you’re my best friend” mother that our Hallmark culture sells through shaming women for not playing a certain type of mother role. My mom changed the subject when I got too close to talking about feelings. She wasn’t abusive. She was uncomfortable with emotion. As a child, I needed that from her. As an adult, I have more resources. Our relationship changed when I realized it wasn’t all about me.
People feel judged when we want them to be different than who they are. It comes with a big down-side in that we are less able to enjoy what they are able to give. With my mom, we connected and enjoyed things we had in common — horses, wildlife and gardening. I didn’t like it when she judged me. I started to show her the same respect.
We are each capable of taking responsibility for our own life and healing. I pay attention now when I grumble inside. Just because I want someone to be a certain way does not mean it is their responsibility to accommodate me. We lessen suffering when we work on releasing resistance to life as it is instead of how we want it to be. We open our hearts to enjoying what there is to enjoy. We feel strong and capable of meeting our own needs in a manner that respects ourselves and others.
I do my best to be consistent, kind and present with people now. I know how important it is to me to be seen and accepted for who I am. This is something we can do for each other. Feeling accepted by others can be an important bridge as we develop more capacity to be on our own side, to offer ourselves kindness and to feel at “home” in ourselves.
When people objectify us, we feel erased. We respond as we do to any threat, typically with a fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. Through somatic (in our body) mindfulness, we are less prone to denial and can sense what is happening. We don’t deny the truth of a relationship or interaction. We feel the hurt and anger. We set boundaries.
Clarity gives us choice. One of those choices is to not shame ourselves for not being perfect. Like everyone, we have been unconscious. Like everyone, we have participated in this and have hurt people. Like everyone, we have the capacity to connect and change. Like everyone, we will struggle with getting the balance right between our needs and those of others.
I watch with interest for subtle signs of wanting someone to be different from who they are and what they offer. This is an ongoing practice that is transforming my life and relationships.