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Tag Archives: social construction of identity

It’s Not All About You

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.

 

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Ego’s God

Post-theism, unlike atheism with which it is commonly confused, advocates for the necessity of theism in the full development of human beings. If I am critical of theism – referring to the belief in higher beings who supervise and intervene on human affairs – it is not because I think its contribution to our progress as a species is no longer needed, but that its worldview for the most part is so outdated as to render it largely irrelevant to life today. I have explored this loss of relevance in recent posts already (Religion and the Snow Cone Universe and The Three Stages of Religion), so I’ll rest my case for now.

According to the general course of religion’s evolution across the millenniums, theism occupies the middle stage between animism and post-theism, which makes it either a successful bridge or a tragic barrier to what Abraham Maslow named the “farther reaches of human nature.” When it succeeds, the personal ego can be transcended in the interest of communion, responsibility, love, and fulfillment. But when it fails in its essential function, theism locks the ego down in regressive attitudes and self-preoccupation, where “me and mine” become anchors of an insatiable consumerism, dogmatic orthodoxy, and redemptive violence.

The present failure of theism is partly due to its insistence on defending an obsolete worldview, but even more to this lockdown on the ego – on its insecurities around death and its ambition for immortality. My title for this post has a double meaning, referring on one hand to the way that god inspires and endorses an acceptable range of possibilities in the formation of individual identity (ego), as a member of this or that tribe. I consider this the essential function of theism. Obedience to the will of god, worship of god’s attributes, and conformity with the character of god as represented in the myths and testimonies of tradition, draw ego development in the direction of this ideal.

The other reading of my title is more consistent, in my opinion, with what theism today has become: Ego is god. This is where it becomes “all about me and for my sake,” where religion is reduced to the services that meet my needs and will ensure my everlasting destiny in heaven when I die. If these services and assurance were not there, ego would have no reason to stay with religion or “be religious.” Today churches compete for the attention, entertainment, satisfaction, membership, and fair-trade donations of the ego-as-god.

To understand how we got here, we need to examine more closely the process of ego formation and the forces that hold ego together. There is widespread consensus in developmental psychology that ego (referring to the individual’s separate center of identity) is not something we are born with, but must be constructed through the process known as socialization. The ego is thus a social construct and is molded, i.e., disciplined, shaped, dressed up, and acknowledged as “one of us,” an insider, a person of value and member of the tribe.Ego Dynamics On the way through this gauntlet of moral engineering, the identity under construction must negotiate two opposing values: to fit in with the group, but at the same time to stand out as an individual. It could be argued that the ego’s need to belong (fit in) precedes and is therefore deeper than its need for recognition (to stand out). But then again, the mere urgency of needing to fit in presupposes some degree of separation or exposure. So I will assume that these two opposing values arise together, forming an inherent tension (and anxiety) in the process and product of socialization known as ego.

In order to fit in and stand out, the ego must be provided with rules and expectations. Every tribe (referring here to any organized and internally engaged human population, beginning with the nuclear family) will have its conventions as to what being “one of us” must look and act like. As the individual toggles back-and-forth between belonging (but without getting buried in anonymity) and recognition (but without losing the connection of human intimacy), ego is trying on various personae or masks.

Each mask represents commitment to a role, and every role is part of a role-play, the elaboration of which is known as culture. In the early years an individual will try on a variety of masks, pretending to be a doctor or nurse, cowboy or Indian, cop or robber, grocery clerk or celebrity fashion model. Through it all, of course, is the felt pressure to be a “good boy” or “good girl” according to the morality of the tribe. Eventually certain masks will become more or less permanent identifiers, as the identity an individual settles on or is stuck with. Typically these demarcate the roles that will involve him or her in such conventional pursuits as marriage, family, and career.

Some masks and the energies they elicit are discouraged by the tribe, as perhaps not appropriate to “who we are” or to the way a good boy or girl should behave. As Carl Jung explained, these roles and their associated inclinations must then be split off and pushed out of sight, in order to ensure the individual’s acceptance by others. This split-off aspect doesn’t just fall away and disappear, however, but lurks behind the ego as its shadow – alluring, scandalous, forbidden, and dangerous. Jung theorized that our full individuation into a whole self is only possible as we are able to come to terms with our shadow and find ways of reconciling it back into our personality. Only then, after integration, balance, and stability have been achieved, can we transcend or go beyond the ego into higher transpersonal experiences.

A primary function of theism, as I’ve said, is to arrange and orient tribal life around an image of ultimate reality, personified and projected as a provident agency behind the mortal realm where we humans live and die. The deity (referring to this personified representation in myth, art, and theology) puts on display, as it were, the attributes that devotees glorify in worship and strive to obey in daily life. In this way, the moral development of culture over the millenniums has followed a trending line of ascent, from basic commitments to the primary group, through an opening-up to outsiders (strangers), and into still more enlightened practices of benevolence and forgiveness (as it concerns the enemy).Ego_Deity_DevilPost-theism urges us to continue this progression, to the point where we have fully incarnated the virtues of our deity – or to put it another way, where the projected image of our own dormant nature is finally reached and awakened in the way we live. At that point we can take up the responsibilities of loving each other, caring for the earth, and being faithful “higher powers” to the generations depending on us. They are just starting out on the adventure of ego-formation, which means that we must be creative mythmakers, wise advisors, and provident stewards of the theism that is shaping them. An important stipulation is that our representation of God (as deity) must be congruent with the cosmology that contemporary science is revealing to us.

But whereas theism might lend a bridge for the longer arc of our spiritual evolution, it is currently hung up on the ego – and hung up by the ego, in the form of deities who are calling for jihads, damning outsiders, and demanding purity over love. God’s shadow, which is the condemned and unacceptable parts of ourselves that have split off and taken metaphysical reality as the devil, is seen at work in liberal politics, in the civil rights of minorities, the decline in church membership, and in the general deviance of our youth.

In the crusade of true believers and fundamentalists against the menacing shadow of evil in the world, “the devil” is actually magnified and empowered. Violence against terrorism only intensifies aggression, just as the state-sanctioned murder of murderers only justifies more murder as a solution to our problem. The split within us thus gets played out as a split down the middle of reality, and in our campaigns to root out and destroy the shadow in our enemy, we are pushing ourselves and everything with us to the verge of extinction.

Ego is not god, but neither is God an ego. The thing that religion seems so desperate to rescue out of the world will bring about the end of the world and take us all down – unless we can wake up first.

 

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