Unit IV. Social Roles, Conformity and Social Subordination


1. Social learning
2. Developmental tasks
3. Enslavement
4. The false self
5. Social roles

Materials needed: Journal

Books and articles needed:

Tao Te Ching

Practices and exercises:

Need to belong
Social learning
Social roles
Role Reversal

Human beings come into the world in pitiful shape. If there was no one to take care of us at birth, nobody would survive. In fact, the first two years of life are critical to survival as well as to development of sensory-motor perception. What this means is that we are born into a matrix of other people. In the beginning, we are totally dependent. As we grow, we go through a phase of needing to be independent. Then, if all goes well, we learn how to function interdependently. This means we are neither completely dependent nor independent, but that we share with others the chores, resources and responsibilities of life. We all need other people to a greater or lesser degree. But we are not born knowing how to interact effectively with others. This is something we must learn.

Social Learning

Our social learning takes place in several stages. We have seen how an infant is gradually weaned from its symbiosis with mother during the first two years of life. Then the personality begins to take shape during the preschool years, and the family is the primary agent of socialization during that time. Now, during the elementary school years, children must come to terms with others who do not have the same backgrounds nor the love for and commitment to them that their families do. In our culture, this socialization is carried out largely by other children and the school system. The peer group begins to take precedent over the family as a reference group. And the schools impose restrictions on children's freedom to express themselves. When children do not conform to the unwritten rules of how to get along with others, they are ridiculed, rejected or punished in various other ways. Schools use different punitive methods than peers, but both insist on conformity. When children do conform and obey the rules, they are rewarded by inclusion, praise and acceptance.

The fact that there are consequences of behavior means that it is reinforced, either negatively or positively, which, in turn, means learning is happening. The learning-through-conditioning paradigm requires 1) a behavior, 2) a consequence or feedback as to whether the behavior secures what is desired (reinforcement) and 3) acquisition of the behavior pattern which is called habit formation. You will recognize this as cause and effect which is called karma in Yoga. If there is no feedback or the consequences are random, no learning of that behavior will occur.

We may not like this as a model of behavior, but on the simplest levels it works. Anyone can observe children testing the environment and other people to see what happens. They then change their behaviors or give them up in response to the outcome. A child comes into a group and wants another child's toy. He grabs it and is immediately hit by the other child. So he may try other means: crying, , hitting back, asking for it, pretending he does not want it, telling the teacher, etc. If he is persistently aggressive, he may find the other children refuse to play with him. So he learns that he must be cooperative and friendly if he wants to play with others. If this behavior occurs within the context of a school environment, the same child may come up against school rules that prohibit aggression. All of this is cause and effect learning, simple conditioning.

Developmental Tasks

This topic normally takes a college course or two to cover all the ground. But there are two tasks that are especially relevant to the school-age child. Eric Erikson (1968) has outlined them for us. For this age range, the first one is described as initiative vs guilt. What this means is that, if children are allowed to start projects and make their own mistakes, they can learn from those experiences. On the other hand, if an adult is constantly correcting them or telling them how to proceed, they will learn that they cannot do anything right. This installs a sense of ineffectiveness and guilt. What is learned is "I can't do anything right." If punishment accompanies the corrections, guilt is conditioned. The inner reasoning is "Since I am punished, I must be guilty of something." "I am wrong." This period runs roughly from four years of age to six or seven. You can easily see the impact such training has on self-esteem and self-image.

The next phase is called industry vs inferiority. It has to do with the learning of good work habits. If outcomes of children's experimentation are favorable during this period, they learn that they are capable of creating things, of fixing things, of making good grades, etc.; whatever they attempt generally comes out well. We could call this learning to be competent. Of course, no one ever has 100% success, and here is where a more sophisticated type of learning comes in. When reinforcement is not 100%, the learning is more resistent to extinction. In other words, the learning is stronger. This is called partial reinforcement. It is as if children never are completely sure that something will work, but it works often enough that they persist, rather like trying to improve the odds. Persistence leads to competence more often than not, so partial reinforcement works in this kind of learning.

If children are not primarily successful, however, they learn that they are inferior. Compared to others, they usually fail. "Therefore," they may reason, "there must be something wrong with me. I am not as good as other children." In school settings, the teacher plays a critical role in helping children to succeed thus developing a positive image of their capabilities.


Victor is 10 years old. He is having some difficulty being accepted by the gang of boys he wants to play with. They call him a sissy and tease him about his name. It hurts so bad he often cries while he stands on the sidelines watching the others play ball. This elicits more teasing. One day the gang decides to try to steal some cigarettes from the local market. They need a "fall guy" to take the big chance, so they turn to Victor and offer him membership in the group if he will sneak up to the rack and filch a package of cigarettes. He needs to belong so badly, he agrees. However, when he is caught, the gang disappears and he is left to take the rap. Or, if he is not caught and is then allowed into the group, he may be subject to threats of betrayal if he does not conform to the group's norms. Either way, Victor is enslaved by his need to belong. Some variations on this theme belong to all of us. Our need to belong is so strong we can become enslaved to the group or to any relationship that is important to us if we are not aware of the potential. This is especially likely if we have low self-esteem or a poor self-image.

Primal Alienation

You will remember Washburn's discussion of primal alienation as a reaction to the mother who is both punishing and loving. Because young children apparently cannot handle both the intense rage of frustration and the love they feel for the one person who is their primary caretaker, they close down on intimacy and begin to move toward more independence. This creates a dualism in the relationship and a distancing that precludes intimacy. To the extent to which this is true, children would then be expected to approach relationships with other children in a frame of mind that reflects their experiences within the family. If the family has been primarily loving and has used gentle means of shaping the child's behavior, the child will approach others with a sense of trust and pleasurable expectations. This child will probably be popular because s/he knows how to interact with others. Others who come from homes where discipline has been overly strict or punitive, may expect to be excluded because they did not feel accepted or loved at home. In both of these cases, we have self-fulfilling prophecies. What we expect tends to happen.

Conformity learning

All learning depends upon some motivation that moves people to exert themselves. So what would you think motivates people to try to please others? Aside from the basic needs to eat, etc. We all have a need to belong, probably based in the dependency into which we were born. And most of us will do almost anything to be accepted by the groups we value and wish to be a part of. Loneliness is one of the most difficult problems we have to deal with. Aloneness or solitude, on the other hand, is something we choose, so it has different connotations. Loneliness is usually felt to be something imposed upon us against our wills. We wish to be with someone and are denied that privilege. Sullivan (1953), p. 262) says, ". . the fact that loneliness will lead to [attempts at social] integration in the face of severe anxiety automatically means that loneliness in itself is more terrible than anxiety." One important response to the need to belong is learning to conform. We must give up having our own way all the time and compromise with the desires of others in order to be accepted into a group or into a friendship.

Exercise: Need to belong

Write a reflective paper on your need to belong. What groups do you belong to? What do you get from those groups? What groups do you want to belong to, but either you have not tried to join or they have not accepted you? If you have not tried to join, is it because you fear rejection or is it just not that important to you? Be honest. This reflection is just for your eyes. What is your response to not being accepted? Are you afraid of trying to join a group? What was your experience with groups in elementary school, in high school and in college if you went to college? Did your experience change as a result of maturity? What did you learn about groups as a result of your experiences with them? What do you offer groups? What do they offer you? Is it a fair exchange?

Do you have a best friend(s)? Would you rather have lots of acquaintances and one or two good friends, or just a few good friends. Do you see yourself as an introvert or an extrovert? Has that changed at different periods of your life? What do you look for in a good friend? What do you offer your friends?

After you have written the paper, go back over it and draw out the main themes in it and list them at the bottom. What do they suggest to you as a future course of action?

Social accommodation

So much social learning is accomplished during this period that it is hard to know where to begin. So I am going to give you a brief summary of some of Harry Stack Sullivan's (1953, chs. 15-16) ideas which, though they are quite old, nevertheless give us some insights into what life is like for school-age children. You can see for yourself whether the descriptions fit you.

When children begin school they come under two new forms of influence both of which can have the effect of either counteracting or reinforcing negative familial experiences. These are social accommodation and social subordination. Social accommodation means that children must change their behaviors to enable them to fit into the new social groups of peers. You can perhaps remember the cruelty of other children when you were young, their essential insensitivity to the feelings of others. This is due to their relative self-centeredness. You will also remember the factor of decentration brought up in the previous unit. Coming up against other children who want different things than you do or who do not share your feelings or ideas about how things are means that one or both must compromise in order to get along. As unpleasant as this may be, it helps youngsters begin to adapt to life in a real world that is untempered by the baffles of family protection.

Social subordination

Nearly daily contact with authority figures other than parents requires a different sort of adaptation. Children learn to take orders and direction from others who are not their parents. They immediately discover that the familiar manipulations do not necessarily bring the desired results, so they must change their behavior in order to get what they need. There is also the opportunity to learn about authority through observation of the experiences of one's peers. If the teacher reprimands Joe for talking without permission, the rest of the children watching can also learn not to do that without having to suffer the same consequences. In addition, to the extent to which teachers and others in authority are different from children's parents, they are helped to "get the parent down to size, " so to speak. This is especially valuable for children who have been abused or neglected at home.

It seems that two major trends are working here to socialize children: the need for acceptance and approval, or to belong, and learning. The need to belong activates the learning. And the learning works to create an orientation in living that is conducive to social cohesion and interdependence later on.

Preadolescent development

Whereas the period of early school-age development results in conformity learning, the later period, from ages 9-12 or so, fosters reciprocity and intimacy learning. By this time boys and girls have begun to diverge in their patterns of relationships. Boys, though they may have a preferred friend, tend to congregate in gangs or groups that do things together. It is the "old boy network" in utero. The norms of these groups often hinge on good sportsmanship and cooperation. Most of the activity focuses on large muscle action such as sports and rough and tumble games. Boys may also begin to feel uncomfortable and self-conscious around girls and prefer not to play with them.

Girls, on the other hand, usually make one best friend and generally prefer to interact with others on a one-to-one basis. Even though these friendships may not be stable over long periods of time, they offer a basis for intimacy learning. Girls' activities are usually less rambunctious than that of boys and favor verbal interactions, such as talking about relationships and feelings or fantasizing about potential future roles. So we see that this is the age period where male and female patterns of social interaction begin to diverge. These are overgeneralizations, of course, but I believe they describe general trends.

In both males and females, loyalty becomes important. And the relationships go into more depth of sharing and reciprocity. Another person becomes important to the child, and his/her well-being is taken into consideration at all times. This is love in its truest sense, my friends. Initially the friendships tend to be same-sex, but sometimes they are opposite sex when circumstances favor that option. Some of the important benefits of intimacy learning lie in validation of personal worth, reduction in anxiety, feedback about one's shortcomings that enables change for the better, reduction of egocentricity and the security of being accepted and liked.

It is also during this time that leadership and followership truly emerge. Those who are favored with greater maturity or intelligence or charisma begin to serve as models for the others and to influence their opinions. These children seem able to get others to collaborate and work together toward chosen goals and to mediate quarrels, etc. So rudimentary forms of social organization are created and children find their places in the system. They also learn that social structures can vary from one group or situation to another such that a leader in the homeroom may be a different person than the leader in the band or on the playground. Ideally children should learn both leader and follower roles since they will be called on to play both in adulthood.

Exercise: Social learning

1. Read verses 15 and 18 in the Tao Te Ching. Do you see a connection with the social learning presented here?

2. Does social learning feel to you like enslavement? If so, what could you do to take control over your own reactions to others and your needs to belong? How much do you need the approval of others? Can you stick to your own truth in the face of disparagement? Can you walk alone in your truth if that is necessary? Or do you cave in under pressure from others whose opinions you value? How difficult is it for you to say, "No" when your own best interest requires it? Where would you draw the line between acceptance and enslavement?

3. Consider your own tendencies with respect to leadership and followership? Which predominates in your life? Can you adjust to either role as opportunity allows? If you are a leader, what motivates your behavior? If you are primarily a follower, what motivates your behavior? If you are relatively balanced, how did you learn to do this? These questions are not meant to stimulate judging, but to ask you to look underneath the surface to learn more about yourself.

Write a self-reflective paper on this topic.

The False Self

In Book II, we saw that a portion of ego, the persona, may be singled out as one's identity, and all other parts of self denied. A similar process on a more global level happens later on as the personality comes into being. Our personalities are a composite of many different aspects of self, each of which has an identity. We can think of them as roles we play or as different patterns of behavior that emerge in different situations depending upon what the situation requires. In a healthy adult, all of these aspects are governed by the ego which keeps them organized and peaceful. Each is aware of the existence of the others and all are known to the ego. This is not always true in a pathological personality such as a multiple personality disorder where the aspects are isolated and many may not even be known to the ego. So we are multi-faceted beings with a great deal of flexibility in how we manifest ourselves at any one time.

According to Yoga, this personality is integrated in the third chakra as our life energy is shaped by our mental activity, controlled by the ego and motivated by our emotions. For this reason, we will study ego and emotions in the third chakra. Furthermore, we discover, our personalities get in the way of transcendence since their activities are directed more toward satisfying our desires than toward enlightenment. It is true that we need our egos and our personalities to interface with the external world, so we do not want to get rid of them. We just need to bring them under control of the Higher Self and bend them into selfless service. However, this is not so easy as they have had years of autonomous existence, and they like to keep it that way.

We refer to the personality as the false self to distinguish it from the Higher Self who is that part of us that is Divine and who is the rightful ruler of our lives. By the time we reach adolescence, the false self is firmly cemented into place, adapted to life in the world, completely socialized and addicted to control. Any effort to dislodge it is going to meet with stiff resistance, hostility and other forms of denial. We will see in the next guidebook how the Higher Self is shelved at the advent of adolescence. And from that time, we usually have no awareness of it at all. The loss of consciousness that began at birth is then complete.

Social Roles

Images of self that were just beginning to form during the preschool period now become more highly practiced and stable in the school-age phase of development. We now call them roles as defined above. In addition to stability, the roles also multiply. For instance, we now can play the role of a student, a true friend, a girl or boy scout, a football player, a debater, a ballet dancer, a little league softball player, etc. And our behaviors differ in each one of these roles. Shakespeare said something to the effect, "All the world's a stage and we are merely players." This line aptly describes social roles. We play differ scenes for different people and settings.

These roles have been conditioned just like the other behaviors we have been studying. We keep what works for us and discard the rest. So, over time, we create a repertoire of roles that serve us well. However, human beings are infinitely adaptable, so we have the power to change or modify them as needed. This means we can delete some from the personality, we can add some, etc. That will be helpful on the spiritual journey as we will need to get rid of many of them that are no longer relevant. For instance, spiritual practices and renunciation will certainly cause us to re-examine our comfortable relationship with the marketing economy. So "mall shopper" may well go down the drain. I assure you that by the time that actually happens you will not be inclined to mourn that role.

Our dreams can give us much information about the roles we play as every character in our dreams represent some aspect of personality. If, for example, you need to get rid of some role that is not serving you well, you may dream that a character dies. When you master the art of dream interpretation, you will be able to discover just which aspect of yourself is the case in point.

Exercise: Social Roles

1. Begin to keep a dream journal, writing down all you can remember of your dreams as well as how you felt in the dream and how you felt when you woke up.

When you have a dream that feels important to you, undertake to analyze it. It is a good idea if you plan to work with your dreams to buy a notebook just for that work. You may use the technique given by Robert Johnson in Inner Work, Pt. 2. Or you may attempt the process outlined in Appendix B. Since each character in your dreams represents a personality aspect and the roles we play reflect different personality aspects., you can gain some insights into your social roles this way.

2. Visit a toy store or the children's section of a catalog and think about the roles that are being taught through toys. Make a list of the roles you find expressed in each of the different types of toys. What roles are missing? Which ones are emphasized in terms of number of different items that express that role? Also note the sex differences and how they are overemphasized. Are there any unisex toys? If not, why not? Are colors important? Think about how little leeway is allowed for a child's imagination to express itself. (The more complex the toy, the fewer options for imagination.) Why do you think that is? What do these toys say to you about the inventor's views on childhood? Do you see any evidence of control over children's thinking and experience?

From time to time we find ourselves in conflict with someone else who disagrees with us about something. Quite often what is happening is that one of our personality aspects is feeling contrary or that something in the other person has aroused one part of ourselves. More often than not, we have projected one of our less desirable aspects onto the other person who receives it because it resonates with one of their aspects. But then the threat of exposure of the underlying dynamics arouses the egos and their emotions, so a fight erupts. Let us see how this might work.

Hugo has a son, Jamie, who thinks Hugo hung the moon, so he tries to imitate him in every way he can. He huffs and puffs as he lifts something onto the wheelbarrow, he mimicks Hugo's eating habits, he repeats choice bits of slang and swear words he might hear, etc. One day, father and son have stopped by grandmother's house to pick up something for mother. Jamie is struggling to get the box loaded onto the back of the station wagon while Hugo chats with Grandma. The box slips and spills its contents onto the ground. Jamie says, "Shithouse, shit, shit, shit." Hugo immediately takes him to task for it because he is embarrassed in front of the grandmother. But Jamie is angered by this reprimand since he was only doing what his father does, so he yells back, "Well, that's what you say." Now Hugo is caught in his own stuff and feels defensive, so an argument is launched over what is appropriate role behavior in front of ladies. Male role, female role, parent role, child role, grandparent role, helper role. What else do you see in this vignette?

Exercise: Role Reversal

There is a technique that is often used to help people resolve a deep-seated conflict especially one that may date back to early years and that has repressed content. This is called role reversal.

Directions. Find a partner and, if possible, an objective observer. Decide on an interaction that you want to examine, one that is problematic for you, perhaps a scene from the work situation or an argument you have had with a parent or spouse. Tell your partner as much about it as you can including a description of the person they are to enact. Then play out the scene with your partner making corrections along the way so s/he gets a clear idea of what that other person did and said. Now play it out again and instruct your partner to observe you and what you did and said, so s/he can reverse roles and play your part in it. Then you play the scene another time with roles reversed. This gives you an opportunity to feel into the partner's position and will enable you to better understand where the original opponent was coming from.

At this point, if you have an observer, that person may give you feedback about what was observed. You may want to try replaying it again to try out different ways to respond. Your partner, now well-versed in the character of your original opponent, can respond in such a way as to help you select the best responses. It goes without saying that this exercise will work for you only to the extent to which you have been scrupulously honest about your own role in the conflict. No one is ever completely right or wrong.

You may later wish to reopen the conflict with the original person and come to a more satisfactory resolution of the issues.


Erikson, E. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Feng, G. and English, J. (Transl.) (1972). Tao te ching. New York: Vintage Books.

Johnson, R. A. (1986). Inner work: Using dreams and active imagination for personal growth. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton.

In Book IV. Social Roles, Conformity and Subordination, we have seen how children's behavior patterns are moulded into socially acceptable forms by the school and peers during the elementary school years. Personality is solidified and the false self becomes entrenched for the duration. In Book V. Ego, Power and Control, Suffering, we will examine ego, the central figure in personality, in order to understand better how to induce it to surrender to the Higher Self.

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