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The Role of Self-Trust in Mutual Recognition

I’m fixated on the subject of trust, and in particular, I’m fixated on the perspective of “self-trust.” However, even more than trust, I’m fixated on the concept of “mutual recognition,” or what Bourdieu defines in Masculine Domination as:

that “by which each recognizes himself or herself in another whom he or she recognizes as another self and who also recognizes him or her as such, can lead, in its perfect reflexivity, beyond the alternatives of egoism and altruism and even beyond the distinction between subject and object, to the state of fusion and communion, often evoked in metaphors close to those of mysticism, in which two beings can ‘lose themselves in each other’ without being lost.”[1]

The part of Bourdieu’s definition that I’m most drawn to is “two beings can ‘lose themselves in each other’ without being lost.”[2] My interpretation of this statement is that a requirement of mutual recognition is for the participating individuals to be self-assured and confident in themselves before they can connect at this level. It’s impossible to give away what one does not possess. If individuals are dependent on other people to feel complete, then mutual recognition is impossible because it can only occur when both people are self-sufficient.

I’m particularly interested in mutual recognition because, as I’ve thought more about it, I’ve begun to view it as a liberating state of consciousness that I consider to be the closest people can come to experiencing Lacan’s the real, but simultaneously, and perhaps due to its connection to the real, I also see how difficult it is to establish self-sufficiency for the sake of attaining this state. I think the development of both self-respect and self-esteem are challenging goals for anyone to accomplish because, ultimately, they result in a loss of self: mutual recognition requires participants to abdicate their egos, their intention to dominate, and their control. It’s dependent on such a high level of vulnerability that the participating individuals cease to exist at all. In which case, it makes sense that people organize themselves in a way that makes the manifestation of mutual recognition nearly impossible. It’s an experience that resembles, for all intents and purposes, death; an unknowable and mysterious realm. However, despite the apparent loss of the ego, one gains limitlessness, connectivity, and profound freedom, transforming from singularity to multiplicity.

The reason I’m writing about mutual recognition is because I think it’s useful when thinking about trust. From my perspective, the goal of trust is to cultivate mutual recognition, and so I’m interested in evaluating systems of trust to determine whether they enable or disable someone from cultivating self-sufficiency. In particular, I’d like to frame these thoughts through the context of cults because mutual recognition is certainly a concept related to mysticism and cults oftentimes embody the ideological traits of mysticism; however, from the outside, cults appear to cultivate individuals who are less self-sufficient rather than more self-sufficient. Members of cults are oftentimes described as people who have been “brain washed” by a central, charismatic leader who oftentimes claims to have access to the word of God. I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks because, although I agree that cult members appear to be under a spell, how are cult members different from anyone else who adheres to specific rules of social organization? Based on my developing knowledge of trust and mutual recognition, I don’t think there are many differences between people in cults and those “outside of” a cult; however, I think the people within the cult operate as a useful metaphor to describe the importance of self-trust and how it relates to self-sufficiency.

The group that I’m going to use to think about how self-trust is related to social order is a self-help organization known as the Landmark Forum. It originated in the 1970s when Werner Erhard founded a company known as Erhard Seminars Training, or more commonly referred to as est. In the 1970s, est was widely popular despite it’s aggressive techniques, such as “participants being shut in hotel ballrooms for fifteen hours at a stretch, forbidden from taking bathroom breaks, branded assholes, and yelled at until they accepted that all their problems from cheating spouses to divorce to assault were all their own fault.”[3] In the 1980s, Erhard rebranded his seminar as the Forum, which was just a less abrasive version of est. The Forum eventually turned into the Landmark Forum and that’s what still exists today, although it’s no longer owned by Erhard. In 1991, he sold the “technology” of the training to his employees and quit.

The Landmark Forum offers a slew of “advanced courses,” but the basic and most popular course is described on the website as a three-day intensive seminar designed to give “people an awareness of the basic structures in which they know, think, and act.”[4] The underlying message behind the Landmark Forum’s success is simple: if people take responsibility for the stories they make up about their perceived realities, then they can transform their limited perspective into something else, like acceptance in lieu of regret, for example. The method used to induce a three-day spiritual transformation is based on group consciousness and social hierarchy. The seminar is led by a single person who is referred to as a “coach” or “leader,” but the magic emerges from the dynamic between the leader and the group. There have been many studies, like the Asch conformity experiments, that demonstrate how people adjust their opinions based on what people around them are saying. In the context of the Landmark Forum, conformity is important because it encourages participants to step outside their comfort zones and participate in ways that they wouldn’t normally participate, encouraging risk-taking and growth, but it is also used as a tool to create knowledge where there might not be any. For example, if the coach makes an observation about a participant—like, “doesn’t Sally look happier than she did yesterday?”—and asks the group for confirmation, which they provide, what happens to Sally’s perception of herself? Before this happened, maybe Sally wasn’t feeling particularly happy, but now that an entire room full of people have confirmed her mood, she doubts herself and begins to feel good. She is happy. 

On one hand, people gain self-knowledge by listening to others’ opinions about themselves. It’s been long established that individuals can only understand themselves when they compare themselves to others.[5] In a vacuum, the self can’t understand itself. It can only understand itself when it has other objects to compare itself to. The Landmark Forum capitalizes on this theory by providing an intensive space in which participants get to hear the “truth” about who they are. As a result, participants gain insightful knowledge about their identity and how it operates.

Although the Landmark Forum provides participants with an alternative perspective about themselves that they may have not contemplated before, the transformation that results from this format cannot result in mutual recognition, or what I am arguing is the goal of self-knowledge. The fast pace of the seminar requires participants to trust the other people in the room even if they don’t understand what the coach or other participants are saying. If they don’t trust what’s being said, they’re not going to experience the “breakthrough” that they were promised when they signed up for the training. Understanding the self is a long and arduous process that reveals itself through endless trials and tribulations, emerging only after hours of self-study, inquiry, and perseverance. The reason that I consider self-help programs like the Landmark Forum to be problematic is because it doesn’t give participants the space necessary to process the information they’re accumulating about themselves, and as a result, the participants grow dependent on the group to provide them with the knowledge they cannot perceive for themselves. I consider this problematic for two main reasons: 1.) it means that the participant cannot trust herself and 2.) it means that the “knowledge” that the participant is accumulating is coming from outside herself.

I’d like to focus on point number two. Although it’s not possible to understand oneself without the presence of difference, that does not mean that the person who is different from oneself also has an unregulated perspective. Subjectivity is ubiquitous. We all suffer from it. In which case, although it’s interesting and oftentimes insightful to hear what other people think about us, their insight is subjective, deriving from their life experiences and personal perspective. In the context of the Landmark Forum, and cults or social organization more generally, it’s dangerous to believe and blindly follow what other people claim is “true” because that truth is context bound and socially constructed. I’m arguing that it’s important for people to trust themselves, because without self-trust, an individual is dependent on those with whom she has placed her trust, and as long as an individual is dependent on someone else to guide her, she cannot experience mutual recognition. It is necessary for individuals to self-actualize before they can unequivocally recognize someone else.

The component where I’m still confused is how someone transitions from self-sufficiency to mutual recognition because, in many ways, they’re contradictory terms, but the more I think about it, I don’t think it matters because once someone has self-actualized and trusts herself, she is immune to fragmentary social dependency. She is whole. Anyway, I have more thoughts, but this blog post is way longer than I meant it to be. Perhaps more on this another day.


[1] Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 111.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ruth Whippman, America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), 39.

[4] See The Landmark Forum: How It Works.

[5] See Hegel’s dialectic of the master and the slave.

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