One important application of the idea that meaning is constructed by our minds and not discovered in reality is in the way it forces us to see ourselves in our constructions. The meaning we put together and project onto things is itself a symptom of our deeper insights, aspirations, ignorance, and insecurities. Our product reveals (and exposes) us as its creator: as Jesus said, You will know the tree by its fruit.
For each of us, the most pressing and significant construction project is the construct of who we are.
A constructivist psychology regards personal identity as something we piece together and put on, and it’s not a coincidence that our very word person derives from the Greek name for the mask an actor wore on stage in characterizing a role. We get our start as sentient animals, and over time we, by the instruction, support, and occasional interference of our tribe, construct a personal identity which allows us to participate in the various role plays of society.
So, as with every other artifact of meaning we construct, it stands to reason that we should be able to deconstruct the person we’ve been playing on stage and mulling over in the privacy of our dressing room.
Because we have pieced it together over time – or to use a different metaphor, since we have weaved this sense of who we are from threads provided to us or spun ourselves – we can also (if we so choose) delineate the pieces and unravel the strands in pursuit of a radical self-understanding.
Such an endeavor is not for everyone. Many of us have installed a system of secrets, defenses, and illusions in order to maintain our identity as singular individuals, a kind of absolute and immortal unit impervious to analysis. To a person, as we might say, these individuals are working hard to hold it together, and they are afraid of learning what they’re really made of, as they are of coming apart to nothing.
But as the spiritual wisdom traditions attest, coming apart to nothing is actually the path of liberation to life in its fullness.
My diagram should be seen at the broadest level as a ‘T’ design, with a vertical line joined to a horizontal line at its bisected point. The horizontal line represents time, while the vertical line is structure. In what follows we will commence a deconstruction of personal identity, and you can take it as personally as you dare.
At the joint of time and structure is the executive center of personality known intimately as ego, or “I-myself.” To the left, corresponding to the past, are the multiple strands going into the weave of this narrative construct of identity, the persisting form of which is called character. The farther back in time you might try to follow this narrative braid, the looser its weave becomes until the strands separate and trail off into the mists of amnesia.
It’s important to understand that this fixed number of threads – think of them as minor storylines – does not exhaust the possibilities but only comprises a selection of memories and imaginings used in the construction of “my past.” The longer weave of these minor storylines constitutes your personal myth (Greek for “plot”) – the grand story and heroic adventure defining who you are.
A familiar anecdote implicates character with destiny, acknowledging how your view of the future as well as the choices that co-determine your fate are in large part projections through this persistent habit of personal identity. Just as with the past, then, the future is really just “my future,” or the view of what’s ahead (so to speak) as determined by your past experiences and present beliefs.
With that we will turn 90° and make our descent along the vertical line in my diagram.
The first layer in the structure of identity – not first or earliest in the sequence of time, but most recent and closest to the surface – consists of those core beliefs by which you apprehend yourself, other people, life in general, and existence itself. A belief is more or less rational, even if not always or very often reasonable or realistic.
In addition to its rational element, a belief carries an emotional commitment – a will and passion to take as true something that isn’t obviously so.
Radical constructivism regards any and all beliefs as closures around a mystery too fluid and elusive to fully define. Words are only labels, propositions mere mental buckets you dip into the living stream, and the conclusions you draw out are curiously bucket-shaped, though you rarely give it a second thought. When it comes to your core beliefs, referring to those judgments by which you lock and stitch together the storylines of personal identity, the conclusions are so close to you, so much a part of who you are, that you can’t see the difference.
Every one of your core beliefs – about “my self,” other people, and everything else – represents an emotional investment in a judgment about the way it is; or better, about the way you need it to be.
The question of why you need it to be that way brings us to a deeper layer in the structure of identity. Those beliefs, remember, are only conclusions to a process transpiring farther below (and back in time). With each deeper layer you engage a more primitive, older and more basic, set of forces in the construct of self.
What I name neurotic styles are six adaptive strategies by which every young child negotiates the landscape of family dysfunction in order to satisfy four subjective needs. Later in life as an adult you continue to carry your personal favorites in that complex of emotional intelligence called your Inner Child. When you get poked or hooked, or when you become stressed and exhausted, your adult controls on behavior can fall offline and your neurotic styles take over.
A quick review of those subjective needs will help you, in coming back up, better understand your personal neurotic styles.
Every child has a need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – arising developmentally in that order. In identifying the satisfaction of these needs as a feeling, quite independent of whether it is a fact, I am qualifying what I mean by calling them subjective needs. Your reality was that the early environment of life was not perfectly safe or unconditionally loving, for no family circle is or can be. As a consequence you did your best to find satisfaction for each subjective need in the one higher up and next in line.
Thus your need to feel loved was complicated by an unmet need to feel safe, and so you attached yourself to others with the expectation that they make you feel both.
It is at this threshold, between your need to feel safe and loved (the security needs) and your need to feel capable and worthy (the esteem needs), that your neurotic styles were formed. As an adaptive strategy, each neurotic style is a power stratagem (a kind of ruse or trick) employed for the purpose of getting what you want; most basically, to feel safe and loved.
Even when you applied your will to achievements beyond the immediate goal of feeling loved (and presumably safe), the validation of your worth in accomplishment still depended on being recognized, praised, and admired (i.e., loved) by others.
The six neurotic styles that play out these power stratagems for security are listed and briefly defined below.
- The Worrywart (phobic-avoidant): running away or staying clear of risk and danger
- The Fixator (obsessive-compulsive): spending nervous energy in trivial repetitive tasks
- The Recluse (passive-depressive): giving up, withdrawing, and waiting for help
- The Hothead (explosive-aggressive): intimidating others by angry outbursts
- The Fanatic (manic-obsessive): glorifying one thing as the answer to everything
- The Saboteur (passive-aggressive): working indirectly to undermine another’s success
One last step down into the structure of identity brings us to the registry of your nervous system, where the feelings of being un/safe, un/loved, in/capable, and un/worthy either allow you to relax in faith and trust, or else cause you to clutch up in anxiety and distrust.
From here your body’s internal state will either invite or impede a deeper descent of awareness into what I name the grounding mystery.
Passing into this deep grounding mystery is only possible to the degree you have released the construct of identity, getting over yourself and dropping the drama of being somebody for the sake of resting quietly, and anonymously, in Being itself.