The holiday season affords fresh opportunities for us to get poked, when others get to see sides of us that, in normal and less stressful times, we manage to keep off-stage. A combination of spending money we don’t really have, fighting traffic on the streets and in stores, and gathering with family members who know best where to poke, puts us in that peculiar holiday mood of excitement, fatigue, annoyance, and regret.
Of course, things would probably go better for us (and for those around us) if we understood what it is inside us that gets triggered, causing us (at least that’s how it feels) to act out in ways we later wish we hadn’t. But this would require some serious and honest self-reflection, when our habit is not to look too closely at what’s going on inside.
To what Socrates said about the unexamined life not being worth living, we could add, with the Buddha, that it also perpetuates needless suffering.
In this post I will guide you on a tour of your personality’s interior – yes, it’s true, of mine as well, along with everyone else’s. My constructivist approach to psychology takes the view that our personality, including its executive center of identity (ego, Latin for “I”), is an illusory architecture of social codes, reflexes, attitudes, and defenses that seems very real but is utterly lacking in substance. Who you are, as distinct from what you are as a human being, is purely a construct, a configuration held together by the pretense of being somebody.
The part of your personality that ego presents to the world, also called your ‘on-stage’ self or mask (Latin persona), is confronted with the challenge of negotiating the satisfaction of your needs in an environment of limited resources and the competing interests of other actors. As long as there are no major surprises, emergencies, or unknowns you can manage this negotiation from day to day without much trouble. But when conditions change unexpectedly or you’re forced into situations where you feel threatened, this ‘thin skin’ of who you’re pretending to be can tear open under the stress.
At this point, still deeper and heretofore hidden vulnerabilities are exposed, and these activate more severe defenses – what Wilhelm Reich named ‘character armor’.
My diagram has taken an illustration of Earth’s interior and adapted it to represent the interior of your personality, with its distinct layers of character armor and the vulnerabilities they are meant to protect. The general idea is that deeper pokes (i.e., assaults or threats that penetrate the surface pretense of who you are), provoke more aggressive and extreme defense reactions, presumably because what’s being defended is closer to the core of who you (believe you) are. My guided tour will begin at the very core and then move out from there into layers higher up and closer to the surface of your managed identity.
I’ve made the point numerous times in this blog that all of us without exception have some degree of insecurity at the core. This is inevitable, given our imperfect parents and the unavoidable mis-timing between the urgency and satisfaction of our basic needs in infancy. So it’s not whether we are insecure, but to what extent our deeper insecurity wreaks neurotic havoc in our personality.
We can think of insecurity – although importantly it insinuates itself into the personality before we have acquired language to name or think about it – as an ineffable (unspeakable) sense of risk attached to existence itself. To some extent we all hold a lingering doubt regarding the provident nature of reality.
When external conditions and events make you feel at risk, it’s this character armor around your core insecurity that gets poked. While in most situations of this kind your very existence is not in question, the effect of such surface signals is to arouse a suspicion against reality and its full support. Perhaps there is a memory of an actual past trauma that your present situation is evoking, or it might simply be pressing upon your general anxiety over the prospect of falling into The Abyss.
For mystics, meditation amounts to an intentional descent (what ego fears as a fall) past the personality and deeper into the grounding mystery of being (ego’s Abyss). In popular religion this release of surrender is called faith – commonly confused with belief, and consequently corrupted.
You need to remember that your personality was formed partly by a conspiracy of taller powers (parents, teachers, mentors, and other adults), but also by the strategies you used to get what you needed. Some of these strategies worked marvelously, while others failed miserably. A complicating factor was the insecurity you carried into each new challenge or opportunity.
Even though the challenge or opportunity was directly about your ability to resolve, overcome, or move through it successfully, a sense that reality might not provide the support you needed undermined your self-confidence. The next layer up from the core of insecurity, then, is all about inadequacy: not being enough or having what it takes.
When you feel inadequate, you are willing to let opportunities slip by. This is because you don’t regard them as genuine opportunities – doors opening to possibility, growth, or improvement – but instead as challenges, in the sense that they require something from you and carry a risk of failure.
Your sense of inadequacy, with its roots in insecurity, quickly re-frames such challenges as problems, which you want less of, not more. You trick yourself into believing that you are avoiding a problem when you are actually turning down an opportunity.
One more layer and our picture is complete. Personalities that lack faith in reality and confidence in themselves commonly employ strategies whereby they compare themselves to others – but also to the ideals of perfection they have in mind – and consistently see themselves as not measuring up. In this way, inadequacy translates into inferiority.
The French psychologist Alfred Adler believed that a sense of inferiority is an early driving factor in human development, as youngsters measure themselves against their taller powers (literally superior, as in above them) who seem so omnipotent.
According to Adler’s theory we can come to adopt an inferiority complex where not only are our efforts never good enough, but we ourselves aren’t good enough as compared with others or our mental ideal. As compensation we may insist on our own self-importance, or push others down so we can feel better about ourselves.
With this stratified model of the personality in front of us you can better understand how identity is constructed, at least in part to sustain the illusion that you are somebody. You have it all together, and you show others only what you want them to see. But be ready. As you gather at the table or around the tree this holiday season, you just might get poked.
It will be a good time to remember that it’s not all about you.