How To Pull Good Things Out Of Others

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Who we are turns out to be largely a function of who we’re with. Have you ever noticed, for example, how you feel and behave one way with your family and another with your friends—and yet another with your co-workers and boss? We may all be multiple selves, but just which self we are at any one moment isn’t as much up to us as it is to the people around us.

This, of course, is no more than a fancy way of saying different people pull different things out of us. But as most of us spend most of our time in the company of others, what others pull out of us becomes what we spend most of our time feeling. In other words, who we are comes down to more than just nature vs. nurture: just who’s doing the nurturing is what largely determines which of our multiple selves we spend most of our time being.

Not that who we want to be is of no consequence. But when it’s at odds with what another person’s presence pushes us to be, who we want to be often loses. How often, for example, do you want to be loving and kind toward your spouse only to be left feeling cold and bitter by his lack of gratitude? Or fun-loving and silly with your children only to be left irritated and mean-spirited by their temper tantrums?

We all exert far more of an influence on who the people around us are than we perhaps realize—not by our conscious intention, but by who we are ourselves. And as who we are ourselves is just as profoundly influenced by the people around us, the people we spend our time being is also influenced by the people we pull out of others. In one sense then, when two or more people interact, they’re creating a third person: the person they are together, a melding of the recursive influence each of the two has upon the other.

Not that this third person is by any means fixed either. When two people first meet, they bring to their first meeting the selves they usually do in whatever particular context they’re meeting. Thus, an employer and an employee bring their “visionary leader” and “good worker” selves, and a man and a woman bring their “first date” selves, and so on. But relationships constantly evolve. Thus, an employer may soon find her controlling self interacting with her employee’s dissatisfied self. Or a man his interested self pursuing a woman’s demure self (or, perhaps, equally interested self). Much, much later on, then, a man may bring his distant self and a woman her frigid self.

The people we pull out of others and the people they pull out of us change over time. All that large change requires is a subtle change in one “action-reaction” couplet (perhaps he stops telling her he loves her and she begins to think he doesn’t) to initiate others. And then, months or years later, the people we pull out of others and who others pull out of us have become completely different from what they were initially—and often not who we want them to be at all.

All relationships, then, are partnerships whether acknowledged or not. As the people with whom we surround ourselves have more control over what we feel than we often do ourselves, and we have more control over what they feel than they often do themselves, if we want to enjoy who they pull out of us, we must take responsibility for who we pull out of them.

Now, certainly, we can’t completely control what selves we pull out of others. We can behave one way toward two different people and get two entirely different reactions. But what we can exert over other people is good influence.

So if we want to be our best selves, the selves we ourselves like the most, we should first aim to pull the best selves we can out of the people around us. If we want to be warm toward others, we should figure out what others do to trigger our warmth and trigger them to trigger it. If we want to be courageous, we should figure out what other people do to make us feel brave and trigger them to trigger that.

We may all be responsible for what we do, but we’re not responsible for what we feel—at least, not entirely. But as what we do is overwhelmingly influenced by what we feel, we need to find ways to trigger others around us to trigger in us the feelings that serve us well. And while we frequently wield our power to induce feelings in others selfishly and irresponsibly, often leading to anger, strife, and fractured relationships, at other times we do just the opposite. At other times we really do pull out of others their best selves.  And at times like those, we may find ourselves feeling the same thing Helen Hunt’s character felt in the movie As Good As It Gets when Jack Nicholson’s character told her: “You make me want to be a better man.”

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  • Seriously, I think this pretty much boils down to “Do Unto Others As You Wish Them To Do Unto You.” Great idea! 🙂

  • Reading this came at a perfect time, right after a break up when I am frequently wondering what happened to the relationship.

    It is all very confusing and complicated, isn’t it?

  • Really meaty food for thought here. Thank you!

  • Love the post, as usual, Alex. I have so many different selves, so I see exactly what you mean. I’ve been trying to consciously surround myself with people and situations that bring out those “best selves.” So far so good! 🙂

  • You are in a fascinating field. I just watched 60 Minutes on being unable to recognize any face including your own. That coupled with your topic today of being different people to different people must make life hard for some people and interesting for you to work with.

    • Hello, I’m having communication issues with my boyfriend. I don’t really know what’s going on or how to communicate effectively. Please, I need help.

  • Doesn’t this just boil down to “followers and leaders”? Simple—with some people I am a follower and with others I lead. There are also those who manipulate and those who only know how to give. It’s how we “fit” into each other.

    My best example is if there is an emergency situation in a public place where no one knows anyone else. It takes only one person to come up with a quick thinking plan, introduce it and others add to this solution. I believe it’s a combination of trusting our instincts and believing in other’s capabilities. THAT`s how a barn is built in a day!

  • Wow !! Absolutely wonderful article! Love the part where you say “We may all be responsible for what we do, but we’re not responsible for what we feel—at least, not entirely.” Added a new level of clarity in thinking…responsibility for our actions has always been clear to me, but feelings have always been that grey area, difficult to grasp; you have verbalized it so well. Thanks, Alex.

  • This sent me to introspection—thanks.

  • Interesting thoughts…remind me of a line of dialogue which at the time struck me for its truth. In Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, Macon explains to his ex-wife why their relationship no longer works, but his relationship with an unsual-for-him partner does work: “It’s not so much who we are, but who we are with that person that matters.” I have found it so true that I can choose who I am by choosing those with whom I surround myself.

    The idea of the creation of the third person is fascinating!

  • Great article. This perfectly adds on to some related thoughts I got at the moment. So your remarks will help me a lot. I’m working on changing my behaviour (and mind) for the better and the thoughts presented in your post are a pleasant way to keep the change going.

    Thanks a lot for sharing, Alex.

  • Without wishing to deny that others do influence one, I believe it is possible to strengthen your own integrity. Indeed that this is imperative if one is not to be constantly swayed this way or that. How do we do this? By doing the things that make us feel strong/solid/happy inside. These things should not therefore be trivial, or fleeting, but things of real substance like good friends, broad education, and life experience. But even these cannot fill the gap sometimes, and for that I believe religion/spirituality/culture comes in. Whether or not you wish to be associated with faith or not, I believe everyone has a spiritual aspect which, (when nurtured), can enable us to become stronger, happier and more fulfilled people. You may disagree with this vehemently, thinking religion conditions you. I can see where you are coming from. But not all religious beliefs are the same, and that spiritual aspect of yours still seeks something.

  • Great food for thought again. Thanks, Alex. I have seen several marriages break down in recent years (family and friends) and often wondered how two people who were once head over heels in love can no longer stand even to be in the same room as each other. Reading your article I realize now that when they first met they pulled out the best in each other, but that now they pull out the worst.

    I disagree with your last paragraph though. I think we are always entirely responsible for how we feel. Subconsciously at least, we always “choose” what mood we are in. I find it very liberating to think that nobody ever wound me up, made my blood boil or got on my nerves—even if it doesn’t always feel like that at first! (And incidentally, getting angry might be exactly the right thing to do). Neither did anyone make me happy or elated, for that matter. In all of these cases the other person is an external catalyst for an emotion already dormant within me.

    As Victor Frankl famously said, when describing his treatment at the hands of Nazis in Auchwitz: “The one thing you cannot take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. This is the last of human freedoms.”

    And when Nichiren talks about “mastering your mind” I think this includes knowing that we are responsible for what we feel.

    As Daisaku Ikeda says: “If someone hits you and you hit him back, the first blow is the stimulus leading to the second, but it is not the ultimate cause. You can maintain that you hit the person because he hit you, but in fact you hit him because you are you.”

    One of the goals of my Buddhist practice is to bring my highest life state out of myself when I chant because when I do this, it naturally helps to pull good stuff from the people around me. So IMO, “if we want to be our best selves, the selves we ourselves like the most,” we should first aim to draw out our Buddhahood.

    All best, David

    David: It’s a tricky thing, to know just what we are responsible for and what we’re not, beginning with the challenging notion of just what “we” are. If our conscious selves, then I must disagree that we’re completely responsible for (i.e., in control of) what we feel—at least, not directly. We may be able to quickly dialogue with ourselves and thereby head off feeling angry when someone insults us. Or we may have broken through enough delusion in our lives so that anger never arises in the first place. But can you stop yourself from loving your children or your spouse? From enjoying your hobbies? I know I can’t. I can, however, if I think it a worthy goal, become someone who doesn’t hit someone back when they hit me, whether I’m feeling anger about being hit or not.


  • I am uncomfortable with the idea that we are largely a product of the company that we keep. (I actually choose to spend much of my time alone.) I think it may enable some to blame others for who they are or who they aren’t and not take responsibility for developing their authentic identity. I believe that our sense of self changes with time, as all things do, and this can be the result of the influences of the people who come into and out of our lives. But it sounds to me like you’re saying that we don’t each have an essential self, that unique core being, what some might call a “soul” or “little voice” that prompts us to seek out certain people and experiences, and I feel that we do.

    Stephanie: In Nichiren Buddhism, how we find ourselves behaving is considered a product of two things: an external cause and an internal cause. An external cause might be, for example, the harsh words of an overly critical teacher. An internal cause might be our own lack of self-esteem; or, instead, our desire to improve ourselves. Effects (or our feelings and behavior) are considered to arise from the interaction of both. Thus depending on which internal cause our teacher activates, we might respond by becoming horribly discouraged or by becoming determined to improve. In Nichiren Buddhism, even those of us who prefer isolation are profoundly interdependent on our environments, meaning influenced by them and continually influencing them. In Buddhism, what we are is considered to be undergoing constant change. The real question is, are we changing for the better or the worse? For we have far less influence over external causes than we do internal ones.


  • Another thought-provoking, interesting post.

  • @ Emilie:

    Yes, after a break-up or even after a serious disagreement, one is open to the question: do we bring out the best in one another?

    @ Stephanie:

    Yes, I, too, wonder how to apply Alex’s criteria to myself, because I, too, tend towards being a loner.

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  • I am curious if it is ever possible to be the same person, every time, regardless of the social context?

  • This post expresses one of your most profound offerings, Alex. Thanks so much. ~Ana

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  • Good word. Thank you.