When we play at being the self (when we run the ‘inadvertent experiment’ of being the self) we are taking on a position or stance that is inherently insecure. To make the experiment of being the self is to experiment at being insecure – these are two ways of saying the same thing. To be the self is to be always looking for what we need on the outside when what we need is not actually there.
This is the game of the self – to pretend that we have nothing on the inside and thus to be always looking for what we haven’t got on the outside. This is what keeps us motivated – this is what keeps us forever running around looking for something to compensate ourselves for the lack of anything on the inside. This exercise is not about ‘remedying’ the lack of anything on the inside (because it can’t), it’s about continually having to distract ourselves from how bad that inner deficit feels.
Being the self (or believing that one is the self) is itself an embarrassment. It’s not even about ‘having nothing on the inside’ – it’s about ‘not really being there but pretending to’. It’s about the preposterousness of what we are claiming to be true, the complete unsupportable audacity of it. I’m pretending to be this entity, this personage. It’s like me saying “I am the man.” But am I? Isn’t it the case that I am just bluffing?
My own unacknowledged audacity presents me with a challenge – what should I do to counteract this uncomfortable feeling therefore, this unacknowledged feeling that I am a hoax and might be found out? I could buy a fine big hat and wear it proudly on my head – that would be one solution! I could buy a fine set of clothes, a suit and a tie and expensive patent leather shoes, and then perhaps I would feel like ‘the man’? There are solutions there, or so it might seem…
Another thing we can do to offset the uncomfortable unconscious feeling that we might get rumbled, that we might get caught out in our lie, is to create the game known as society (which is of course an extension of the game of being a self). Society gives each of us a role, an identity. Everyone has a place in society and having a place proves that we exist. So then, when society gives us a role, gives us an identity, we don’t need to worry about being caught out in our pretence anymore and what a relief this is!
I really am the mayor, the policeman, the income tax inspector, the headmaster, the doctor of philosophy, the famous author, etc, and this no one can deny. Straightaway therefore out of this certainty there comes a good feeling, the good feeling of knowing who you are through everyone else knowing who you are! This ‘good feeling’ is the coin we are all playing for. The pleasure of being validated in itself provides us with a whole motivational system because I can now strive to ‘better myself’ within the terms of the system, within the terms of the game I am playing. I can strive to ‘be somebody’. I can strive to be acknowledged. And who knows – one day I really may get to ‘be somebody’ and how good will that feel? What a marvellously inspiring goal this is! Isn’t it great to see someone really applying themselves and trying to make something of themselves in life?
Games work both ways though. Like a sword, both sides are equally sharp. What this means is that to the very same extent that a game can make us feel good by validating us if we play successfully, it can also make us feel correspondingly bad by devalidating us if we don’t. We always lose sight of this when we’re playing because unless we’re anxious we automatically picture ourselves as being winners rather than losers. We play games hopefully, in other words and it is the hope that leads us on. Playing games hopefully means that we focus on the prize that is to be attained rather and believe that we have every chance of attaining it. We don’t focus on the possibility of this not happening and for this reason we see society as a good thing because of the way in which it can potentially validate us rather than seeing it as a ‘bad thing’ because of the way in which it can potentially devalidate us.
We imagine therefore that we can use the strategy of ‘playing the societal game’ to dodge the central difficulty that we’re faced with, which is the difficulty of ontological insecurity. We don’t consciously arrive at this solution of course – the whole point of playing a game is that we don’t let on to ourselves that we are doing so. It’s ourselves we are dodging here, so to speak! What we’re actually doing is that we’re assuming that we can escape from the central difficulty without either knowing that there is such a difficulty in the first place or that we are making the assumption that we can get away from it.
We can’t escape from the insecurity that is inherent in playing the game of the self, however. This would be equivalent to ‘the self escaping from the self’ and it doesn’t take a genius to see that this isn’t going to work. We can’t escape from this insecurity – we can only reformulate it in different terms, in the terms of the game that we are playing without knowing that we are playing it. The ‘new’ type of insecurity that we are now faced with is the insecurity of not knowing whether we can win at the game or not. Perhaps it will happen that instead of being validated by the game we will be devalidated by it. How are we to know which way the knife will cut?
What we have done in this game is to have created a situation where there appears to be the possibility of escaping from the insecurity. This possibility is ‘real’ for us just so long as we are playing the game (which is to say, just so long as we don’t allow ourselves to see that it is a game) and so in a kind of a way it could be said that we have ‘solved the problem’. It’s only a temporary solution however and it comes at a prohibitive price. Actually, it’s an imaginary solution, which means of course that it isn’t a solution at all. when we look at it closely enough we can see that this so-called ‘solution’ doesn’t even work within its own imaginary terms – it doesn’t even work in its own imaginary terms (which is to say, within the terms of the game we are playing) because the short-term gain is always going to be effectively cancelled out in the long term. Our idea of a solution is when we win without ever losing, but this never happens – the only reason we think things are working out for us is because we’re not looking at what we might call ‘the deleterious complications’. We refuse to believe in them.
We can see these complications very clearly when we look at the game called ‘society’. We’re all struggling to do well in society, to be accepted within society, to find a place in society but what this means – of course – is that I win then you lose, and vice versa. The ‘prize’, in any game, only works as a prize if one player gets it rather than another (otherwise it’s meaningless, otherwise it’s not worth struggling for) and so – within the terms of the game that is society – one person can only get validated at the expense of another person getting (relatively) devalidated. If I ‘look up’ at one person then I have to, by the same token, ‘look down’ on another. If we exalt one person to the dizzy heights we must correspondingly downgrade the other. How else can it work? There’s no way to have important people without also having the unimportant ones – the special requires the ‘non-special’.
Society is a dirty old game, in other words. How can it not be when one man’s advantage means another man’s disadvantage? ‘Validation’ (like wealth, which is very closely related) is a limited commodity that has to be competed for and let no one tell you that the competition is a fair one! We all take part in the competition (and ignore the dirty side of things) because we hope it will be us that will be validated but the truth of the matter is of course that only the few will reap the benefits at the extent of the majority. Only a few of us will get to be ‘somebody’ – the rest of us will just have keep on hoping…
The question is then, if me being positively validated requires someone else being negatively validated (and the one must happen to the exact same extent as the other, as we have said, or the game just won’t work) then is this really a meaningful strategy? If I can only feel good when someone else feels bad (which is – again – the very essence of all competitive games) does this not mean that I will feel bad about getting to feel good? Am I not cheating myself with this strategy, in this case? Needless to say though, very few of us do see things this way. We don’t tend to see society as a dirty game. If I do win validation / status within the societal game I will see my success as legitimate – I will see myself as deserving this validation (and by the same token, I will see everyone else as undeserving). Those of us who have been devalidated by the game (and who as a consequence have a negative rather than a positive identity, i.e. a ‘loser identity’ rather than a ‘winner identity’ within the framework that we are playing by) may not see this as being a legitimate state of affairs. We may not see this as being legitimate at all but the point is that it doesn’t matter what we think because we no longer have any voice! Only the winners have a voice, only those who have been validated get to be listened to. It is only those who have been validated by the system that have a voice and they are complaining…
This particular strategy for solving the problem of our inherent insecurity about existing doesn’t work when we consider the overall view. It works for some at the expense of others. And even if we take the narrowest frame of reference here (which is the FOR of the game-playing self, the competitive self which doesn’t care if others lose) this strategy doesn’t really work out, not when we look closely. Even I do succeed in getting validated by the game as being someone, as having ‘significant existence’ that none can question, this still isn’t going to help me in the long run. After all, the better I am at fooling myself the bigger and nastier the surprise is going to be when I finally do see through the deception!
So when I come up with a superlatively effective way of validating my false idea of who I am, a failsafe way of making this ‘self’ seem real, am I really doing myself a favour here? Is society doing me a favour by providing me with a concrete role or identity? Is it rendering a valuable service to me? Clearly not – I’m just allowing myself to be set up for a terrible shock (the biggest shock ever) when I finally get exposed to the truth, as I must be sooner or later. For how long can one hide from the truth, anyway? It is a rather well known psychological fact that an unwanted truth has lots of ways of knocking on the door, after all! What else are neurotic disorders other than this persistent knocking, combined with our escalated attempts to ignore or deflect what is going on? The cleverer the lie the more painful coming clean is, and we are putting all of our formidable ingenuity into inventing cleverer and clever lies the whole time. That’s what we’re at – that’s ‘the human game’. Coming up with ever more inventive and ever more convoluted ways of deceiving ourselves is what we call ‘progress’….!
We have a huge reluctance to seeing that things simply CAN’T ever work out for the conditioned self (which is the self which is forever running away from the insecurity that is itself). We have an absolutely monumental resistance to entertaining the possibility that no matter what the self does, it can never win out and get things to be the way it wants them to be. Actually, this isn’t just ‘monumental resistance’ that we’re talking about here – it’s a lot more than that. It is an absolute precondition that the self can never allow itself to see that it can never get things to work out for it the way it needs them to, that it can NEVER outrun its nemesis, which is its own insecurity, its own fear. As long as I am playing at being the self, fear will be my master; contrary to my unconscious expectations, my activities and interests (which all come down in the end to my unexamined need to somehow outrun my fear) will only ever extend the domain of this fear, and increase its deadly hold on me.
If we saw that we can never outrun our nemesis then there would be no way that we could carry on with the game. The whole point of the game is that it is a solution to the problem of our insecurity, which is a problem we are absolutely unwilling to face. The self is defined by its inability to face the truth of its situation. It is the heedless hope of ‘escaping our nemesis’ that drives us in everything we do! So the only way to play the game is to first make ourselves blind to the fact that it can never work. Or as we could also say, ‘not seeing that our strategy can never ever work’ is an absolute precondition for us sticking with that strategy, and we are implacably determined to stick with it through thick and thin, no matter how many ‘deleterious complications’ our obstinacy in this matter is going to create for us!
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.