By Laura A. Roser

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Insight and What It Means for Your Family

In his 1943 play No Exit (Huis Clos, in French), Sartre wrote:

“All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for redhot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!”

This is often one of the most misunderstood quotes. Many explain the quote, “Hell is other people,” as a misanthropic statement about the bad qualities of other people and that having them in your life, therefore, leads to hell.

But this isn’t what Sartre meant. His statement is more about shame. In other words, another’s understanding of me and interpretation of who I am, reduces me to their conception of who I am. For example, if I am at a meeting and the other person has decided that I am shy and lack initiative, their conception of me keeps me within that box and other parts of my personality or persona cannot come out. So, I am trapped in a hell of their expectations—no matter how inaccurate or narrow.

I love this concept when thinking about family dynamics. Because how you treat your family members—your expectation of them, your interactions with them—can shape their entire concept of themselves.

Let’s look at an example: Let’s say your daughter walks into the kitchen and sees a plate of cookies sitting on the table. She looks around and realizes no one is there. So, she grabs a cookie, but didn’t notice you come up behind her when she did.

Right when she takes a bite, you tap her on the shoulder and say, “How is it? I’ve been dying to try one of these things!” And you grab one too.

This is turning out to be a great day for your daughter. She now has someone conspiring with her to eat the cookies and feels happy and proud.

On the other hand, the scenario could start out the same way, but this time when you tap your daughter on the shoulder, you say, “I can’t believe you just ate a cookie! Those weren’t for you! You’re so selfish.”

Now your daughter feels terrible solely based upon your reaction.

Therefore, illustrating Sartre’s point—we cannot truly know ourselves without taking into consideration the effect of other people.

I think this concept is especially important for family members who have spent vast amounts of time with each other. They all have a conception of each other based on years of interaction. But often this expectation keeps their family members locked in a box that they cannot grow out of.

We tend to fall into the roles we have played all of our lives with our families, but in order to grow, we often must seek out other people who have different expectations of us.

Parents, for instance, who still see their child as helpless and incapable of living on his own do that child a disservice when he reaches his twenties and they still believe he needs their help to register for his college classes, do his laundry and so on. (Hence the many cautionary articles about Snow Plow and Helicopter Parenting.)

My take away from Sartre’s insight:

1) if you are feeling trapped and underestimated, try finding new people to associate with;

2) allow your loved ones the space to grow and show their many fascinating facets as they journey through life and evolve.

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Laura A. Roser is the founder and CEO of Paragon Road, the #1 authority in meaning legacy planning. For more information about meaning legacy planning services, visit