MYTH : FEELING BAD CAN BE CURED BY THINKING POSITIVELY
One thing that we hear a lot when we are feeling bad is that we should ‘think positively’. People never seem to tire of coming out with this particular piece of advice. And yet it’s no help to anyone to hear it – the truth of the matter is that if I am depressed and you advise me to try to think positively I will actually feel worse, not better. Why this should be so is not too hard to understand. If I am feeling down then I am going to be having a negative outlook on life – whoever heard of someone feeling down and yet being optimistic at the same time? This is clearly utter nonsense. Yet people are more-or-less guaranteed to come along and tell me (with nothing but the best intentions, of course) that what I should do is to try to think positive thoughts instead of negative thoughts. But if I could think in an upbeat, positive way then I would not be depressed, and so I would not need you to come along and advise me to think positively.
On the other hand if I am depressed – and for the sake of the argument we will say that I am – then you coming along and breezily tell me that the way to not be depressed is to try to change my negative thinking into positive thinking this advice is not merely ‘unhelpful,’ it is downright punishing. Here am I undergoing the ordeal of depression (which for those who have not experienced it is quite impossible to understand) and you come along and tell me that what I ought to do is think positively. This is basically telling me that I ought to stop being depressed. It is, when it comes down to it, a flat rejection or denial of the fact that I am feeling this way. It is ‘not allowed’ that I should be this way, despite the fact I can’t do anything about it. The implication is that if the person giving the advice were depressed he or she would do the ‘responsible’ thing and immediately stop themselves from being depressed by thinking positively instead of negatively. The advice is not neutral but ‘loaded’, which is to say, it contains a hidden message. The hidden message is simply that I am either weak or stupid or irresponsible or selfish (or all four) because I am not doing that.
I am set up to fail here because although it is very easy indeed for someone who is not suffering from depression to tell me that I ought to be able to pull out of it by pure will-power, it is not so easy for me to do. Actually, it is not just hard, it’s flatly impossible. If I am depressed then I cannot force myself to be not depressed just because I don’t want to be depressed. No one wants to be depressed and if it were as simple as just forcing oneself to think positive thoughts instead of negative then obviously no one would ever be depressed. Of course it’s good to think positively and not be always seeing the worst side to everything, but if I force myself to think positively then it isn’t real. It’s only real if it is happening naturally, if it is happening by itself. We can give many examples to show that this is so. To give just one: if you say you like me without me making you say it, then this is happening naturally and it is worth something, but if you are only saying it because I am making you say it, then it is worthless, it doesn’t mean a thing. Everybody knows that. It’s the same when I try to force myself to do anything that ought to be spontaneous. This is true for laughter, love, creativity, interest, compassion and it is also true for happiness. Happiness is a spontaneous thing, a gift from above – we cannot give it to ourselves and the idea that we can is plainly wrong. Nobody wills themselves to be happy – it just doesn’t happen that way. Happiness does not come about as a result of intention and calculated action.
MYTH : THINGS WILL GET BETTER IF I PUT ON A HAPPY FACE
Another thing we often hear is that if you smile, and put a brave face on things, even when you don’t feel like it, then eventually you will feel as good as you are pretending to. Experience shows, however, that this is simply not true. In fact the opposite is true because the more you deny your true feelings and hide behind a smiling mask, the more unbearably horrible and hollow you will feel inside. In our superficial, image-based society the myth is that if you look good on the outside (by buying expensive designer outfits, having your hair done, having perfect white teeth, working out in the gym, having plastic surgery done) this will somehow percolate through to the inside and make everything right there. So if everything is bright and breezy and full of light on the outside, everything will be grand on the inside. Of course, as soon as we see this written down in black-and-white on a page it doesn’t sound quite so convincing. In fact it would be more accurate to say that it starts to sound pretty dumb.
From an intuitive point of view we are likely to suspect that ‘fixing the outside’ (which is easy and costs us relatively little) is only a poor substitute for tackling the deeper issues, which is a different kettle of fish entirely. Fixing the outside so that I will be happy on the inside is putting the cart before the horse –
Fixating on the outside (or on the trivial details of my life) to the exclusion of what is really bothering me on the inside is called denial and it is a recipe for disaster. I am going to end up trapped behind an empty smiling face, trapped behind a glamorous hairdo and nice nails, trapped behind a successful image. People will want to know the face, the hairdo, the image but who I really am will be buried out of sight behind all this. What is really happening with me will be ignored and neglected by everyone, including myself. So then even if the whole world admires me and tells me I am great, it isn’t really me they are admiring but the empty act, the hollow performance, and this will not help me feel the least bit better. Success on the level of the image can all-too-easily hide disaster as far as the true, inner self is concerned. As it says in Mathew 16:26 (King James Bible) –
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Forcing ourselves to look as if we are feeling good when we are not is ‘putting on an act’, it is as we all know no more than ‘pretending’ and it doesn’t magically transform us into being as happy as we are forcing ourselves to seem. If somebody asks me to ‘keep up the front’ (either explicitly or implicitly) what they are saying is that they don’t care about how I really am, they only care about the superficial image of ‘how I seem to be’. This is the message. They just want to keep it superficial – as long as everything looks ok, they are happy. And if I try to help myself by focussing only on how things look on the outside then I am doing the same thing – I am turning my back on myself, ignoring myself, neglecting myself, and this is obviously not going to have a good result. The idea that we can get to feel good about ourselves by living life purely on the level of appearances is a myth put about by our superficial image-fixated consumer culture, a denial-based culture that thinks ‘how we look on the outside’ is the only thing that matters.
MYTH : LOW SELF-ESTEEM CAN BE CURED BY ‘ACCEPTING YOURSELF’
It is often said that the key to overcoming low self-esteem is to ‘accept oneself’. If you suffer from what is generally called ‘low self-esteem’ the chances are that you will hear this quite a lot. It is of course very obviously true that if you accept yourself then you won’t have low self-esteem but telling someone who has low self-esteem to accept themselves is actually ridiculously unhelpful – it is exactly the same as telling someone who is depressed to try to think positively instead of negatively. The reason I don’t accept myself is because I don’t like myself, because I think I’m a crappy person. If I was able to accept myself then that would mean that I was okay about myself, and if I was okay about myself then that would mean that I didn’t have low self-esteem, and if this was the case then I wouldn’t need to try to ‘accept myself’ in the first place! There is another way of looking at why the advice to ‘accept yourself’ is not helpful. Any deliberate act of will, any purposeful, goal-orientated action, always involves accepting the outcome that you want, and rejecting the outcome that you don’t want. This is inherent in the very nature of goal-orientated action –
What this means is that any purposeful action equally involves acceptance and rejection – these are the two sides of the coin, one can’t exist without the other. If I try to accept myself then ‘accepting myself’ is the outcome I am saying YES to, and ‘not accepting myself’ is the outcome I am saying NO to. But the only reason I am trying to accept myself – obviously – is because I do not accept myself. The reality of my situation is that I am not accepting towards myself. That’s how I am, that’s how things are with me. I don’t like things to be that way and so I am saying NO to that reality. I am rejecting ‘the way that I am’ – which is of course what I always do, since that is what ‘not accepting yourself’ means!
In short (as Alan Watts says) what this means is that the instruction to ‘accept yourself’ is a double-bind. The reason it is a double-bind is because the more you try to obey the instruction the more you disobey it. The more you try to get it right the more you get it wrong! If I have low self-esteem, therefore, and somebody tries to help me by telling me that I need to accept myself, and if I try to do what they are telling me to do, then the result of this is that I am going to feel worse not better. I am not going to be able to follow the advice, and naturally enough I will think that this failure is my fault (rather than it being the other guy’s fault for advising me to try to do an impossible thing) and so I am going to be even more down on myself than I was before. I am going to go away feeling even more of a hopeless case, even more like a person who ‘can’t be helped’.
MYTH : IT IS IMPORTANT TO LEARN TO ‘LOVE YOURSELF’
Another thing that we hear a lot is that we need to learn ‘love ourselves’. People say that being able to love yourself is an essential part of good mental health. The trouble is that trying to love myself is exactly the same as trying to accept myself which means that when I try to implement this ‘first step’ I straightaway tie myself up in knots. It is an impossible instruction. And if this weren’t enough of a problem there is also the problem that practically none of us understands what that word ‘love’ really means. As innumerable spiritual teachers have said, when we say ‘love’ we generally mean attachment. Attachment means that my ego, my fixed idea of myself, comes into it. So if I say ‘I love you’ what I really mean is that I love you for me, for my ego. You are my ‘love object’. What I am saying in other words is ‘you are important because of your value to me’. Attachments are by definition all about me, they are never about anything else – if I really loved you instead of merely being attached to you then I would value you for your own sake, not for my sake but this non-attached sort of love is very rare. Unicorns are more common…
Of course, we all function on the basis of attachments and that is perfectly normal, but this does not mean that we should kid ourselves that attachments are anything other than attachments, that doesn’t mean that we should validate them or justify them and say to ourselves that they are ‘the way to go’. We are all fundamentally selfish and this is perfectly normal – but that does not mean we should go around claiming that selfishness is the same thing as caring about others. Because we don’t understand what love really is when people say that it is important to love yourself this is bound to be interpreted as ‘be attached to yourself’. This is a disastrous idea. We are of course all attached to ourselves anyway but encouraging this attachment as a way of becoming mentally healthy is bizarre in the extreme. If I am attached to myself then what this means is either –
These two possibilities are the two sides of the same coin: if I love myself then I think that I am great, I think that I am God’s gift to the world. If I hate myself then I think that I am rotten and horrible, I think that I am a piece of crap. Either I am self-obsessed or I am self-fixated. Neither  nor  correspond to what anyone could possible call ‘good self-esteem’. In the first case I am what is commonly called ‘a complete asshole’ and the second case is hardly any better – no one is going to say that it is great to go around thinking that you are a piece of crap! Either I raise myself up too high or I cast myself down too low. What would be best is if I neither raise myself up nor put myself down but just allow myself to remain ‘on the level’, which is where I would be if I didn’t interfere in the first place. Being on the level means that I don’t manipulate things to make myself seem better than I am, nor do I manipulate things to make myself seem worse. I just leave it alone, I don’t get involved. After all, it’s not really my business to control or manage my image of myself – if I start going down that road I’m bound to end up in trouble, no matter which way it goes. ‘Letting things be what they are’ is the key to everything as far as happiness and peace of mind is concerned, just as attachment (i.e. dependence upon outcomes) is the key to frustration, misery and unending anxiety.
In one way loving yourself makes sense – it makes sense if by that you mean ‘not neglecting yourself’ or ‘taking care of yourself rather than punishing yourself’. But if by loving yourself you mean literally loving yourself then this is a confused idea. It is a confused idea because literally ‘loving yourself’ necessarily involves turning yourself into an object. In order to love myself I need to relate to myself – I need to ‘stand outside myself,’ in other words. This is hardly a recipe for a good state of mind. Who I am is ‘a subject’, not ‘an object’: I can relate to my objects, but I cannot relate to myself as a subject because as a subject I am not outside of myself. I can ‘kick the ball’, I can ‘eat the cake’, I can ‘pat the dog’ and I can ‘peel the banana’ but the suggestion that I can ‘love myself’ is ridiculous. It’s not the same sort of thing at all. I cannot see myself, let alone love myself – as the philosopher Alan Watts says that would be like a tooth trying to bite itself, or an eye-ball trying to see itself.
MYTH : GOOD SELF-ESTEEM IS THE RESULT OF ‘ACHIEVEMENT’
The idea that the way to overcome low self-esteem is by achieving is a classic ‘mental health myth’. Like all the other myths that we have looked at, it seems to make perfectly good sense when we hear it, but when we think about it more deeply we can see serious problems with it. When I look around I can see that people have different degrees of confidence in themselves, and it is easy to think that the amount of self-confidence someone has depends on how much they have achieved in life. Achievement seems to be the magic word. This idea fits in with the ‘it’s good to be a winner’ ethos that we are brought up on from childhood. The hidden message in our culture – reinforced by a constant barrage from the mass media – is that it’s good to win and bad to lose and so the answer to everything is simply to be a winner. Winning is by its very nature competitive, which basically means putting yourself above everyone else and being happy when you get the good stuff rather than them. This is of course purely and ignorantly self-centred – and yet somehow this crudely self-centred attitude is supposed to make us feel happy!
This message might be unashamedly crass and shallow but that doesn’t alter the fact that, deep down, we are all tend to believe it. How could we not believe it, given the fact that we hear this message, in innumerable disguised variants, hundreds of times every day. Believing that ‘winning is what counts in the end’ is the same as believing that ‘money will make you happy’. Most people will straightaway deny that this is true, they will assert (by reflex almost) that money alone cannot buy happiness, but deep down we probably believe that it will and the only reason we say otherwise is that we don’t want to seem crassly materialist either to ourselves or others. It’s like we have a duty to deny the ‘dirty truth’. We say we don’t believe that money makes you happy to cover up the fact that deep down, we do. And after all, if we didn’t all believe that money would make us happy why is there always a queue for scratch cards in the newsagent? We live in a blatant ‘consumer society’ – of course we think that money is the answer to all our problems. Similarly, although maybe not everyone would come right out and say it we do all believe on some level or other that being successful is the key to feeling good about ourselves –
In short, when we feel bad about ourselves, or even just unsure about things, there is a tendency to cope by applying ourselves wholeheartedly to the task of ‘becoming a winner rather than a loser’. The uncomfortable feelings then get pushed out of sight and I can put all my energies into chasing the lure, the glittering prize of ‘success’. This is what psychotherapists call pseudo-solution –
If I were to actually think about this I would see that it is plainly ridiculous – how can I possibly ‘make things right’ by ignoring the real problem and putting all my efforts and energy and time into what is no more than a red herring? Obviously, this is only going to make things a hell of a lot worse. But the point is that pseudo-solution works unconsciously – it has to work unconsciously because that’s the only way in which it can work. It doesn’t make sense if we actually think about it, and so we don’t. Pseudo-solution means that all the urgency to attend to the original problem gets diverted towards the ‘surrogate problem’ which then ends up of course getting all the attention. It matters as much to us as it does do to because really – unbeknownst to ourselves – we are trying to solve the original problem and not the ‘superficial problem’. Success within society’s terms symbolizes something else for us, something much more important and a lot less tangible.
It can be hard to understand this point. It seems wrong to suggest that money and success are not important. Obviously it is important to have success within the task that you are engaged in: a fisherman wants to have a good catch, a builder wants to build a house that won’t fall down, a teacher wants his or her students to do well in examinations and so on. Equally, if I am not succeeding at the task at hand then this is a problem. But the problem is that these relatively important issues get loaded upon by unconscious factors which then hijack them and make them important in ways that they should not be important. They become absolutely important – they become fixations, they become phobias or obsessions. A businessman can go on chasing financial success even when he or she has more than enough money and this obsession is to the detriment of everything else. Money then becomes a holy grail, the ‘be all and end all’, when of course it is not. It is only money.
This is particularly obvious in the case of someone who is addicted to gambling. The illusion is that if I win the jackpot at the end of the rainbow, if my horse comes in, if I get the big break I have been waiting for, then everything will straightaway be ok. All my problems will be solved. Gambling is a classic example of pseudo-solution. If I stopped to think carefully about it I would realize that this dream is completely absurd – if I have been ignoring everything that really matters for years (if I am an inveterate gambling-addict) then how the hell is everything suddenly going to be ok just because I have won a lot of money? I am going to be the same unhappy, addiction-driven person I was beforehand. I am not suddenly going to be ‘well in myself’ just because of the big win. Of course I will be euphoric for a while, but when the euphoria wears off its going to be the same old me with the same old underlying problems.
Winning a huge amount of money isn’t going to solve these problems – it’s just going to give me much more fuel for my gambling-addiction, and any other addictions that I might have. The thing about an addiction (any addiction) is that it has a certain energy or momentum which, once it has built up, is not going to suddenly disappear into thin air. A change of external circumstances does not mean that all that ‘habit energy’ which is the accumulated momentum of the addiction is just going to go away and leave me. How can that happen? It was only ever a ‘pseudo-solution’ after all. So even if I stop gambling after my big win (and it is of course absurdly unlikely that I will ever have that big win in the first place!) the addiction will just pop up somewhere else, in some other form. Owning a large amount of money will not restore my mental health to me, it will just give me a greater ability to harm myself. Gambling is of course a trap because the worse I screw my life up because of it, the more I rely on making the big win to get me out of the hole I am in –
The same process of ‘loading’ is taking place (whether we know it or not) whenever success becomes all-important for us. Loading takes place when success in the task which I am engaged in gets hijacked by unconscious factors so that it becomes ‘all-important’ when it is really only ‘important up to a point’. The other side of loading (or pseudo-solution) is that failure becomes far more significant, far more terrible, than it ought to be. It too becomes absolute, it too dominates the field. If it is all-important that I should succeed then it is of course also all-important that I must not fail.
What this means is that if I try to improve my self-esteem by succeeding (i.e. by tying up my sense of well-being and self-respect with ‘being a winner’) then what I am actually doing, unbeknownst to myself, is making myself a slave to an all-consuming ‘fear of failure’. When achieving becomes over-important, then so too does failing. It becomes important for all the wrong reasons. Because our culture is a psychologically unaware one we are all trying to achieve for the wrong reason – we are all trying to ‘prove something’ rather than just trying to get the job done. This is the reason why ‘loser’ is such a deadly insult for us. Failing (failing at anything really, no matter how trivial) means that I lose all self-respect, as well as any chance of being respected by my peers. But this is plainly ridiculous: failing at whatever task that I happen to be engaged in does not mean that I become less of a person because of that. But nevertheless because my well-being is tied up with success the prospect of failure haunts and torments me to an unreasonable extent; for me – because I have so much tied up with success – failure is an unmitigated disaster. Failure in the task then means that I am a useless, worthless person; it means that everyone will laugh at me, scorn me, and want nothing to do with me. The idea of being a failure terrorizes me.
From a purely practical down-to-earth point of view, the idea that being a winner is the way to achieve a state of mental well-being is also totally absurd. The way competition works is that a few people win and everyone else doesn’t win. It is a pyramid with a very small number of people up on top and the great majority of the population down below, in the ‘inferior position’. Of course we can always hope – from a purely selfish point of view – that we will be one of the winners (which is of course how the game works) but from a collective point of view the idea is a disaster. Only a tiny minority of people can ever attain the high status that will allow them to feel good about themselves. And even if I am one of the few who gets to be ‘one-up’ in the game this isn’t actually going to help anyway! It isn’t going to help because it was only ever an evasion, a pseudo-solution and chasing pseudo-solutions isn’t just useless, it is guaranteed to create unlimited amounts of suffering.
Making myself dependent upon achieving in order to feel good about myself is a bad idea. There is no way in which we can separate the desire to be a winner from the fear of being a loser – as long as I have everything tied up with ‘winning’ I am always going to prone to anxiety because my well-being is dependent upon external circumstances. Even if I do succeed I am still always going to be vulnerable to the fear of disaster – by ‘buying into the game’ I have made myself into the slave of the need to succeed, which is an unfree state of being. Basically, I am ‘ruled by fear’. By tying my well-being to ‘how well I am doing in the social game’ I am making myself into the helpless slave to the need to do well and there is no free will in this at all. I don’t struggle to succeed because I freely choose to, but because I have to. Another way of putting this is to say that I have become an addict, and being an addict – obviously enough – is not a very good state of affairs. Addictions, by definition, are not healthy and so being addicted to chasing the dream of success is therefore a prime manifestation of mental ill-health. Mental health is something completely different –
In general, if I am feeling bad inside and I try to feel better by doing stuff – which is to say, by striving to attain specific goals, then it is very likely that these specific goals are going to turn into pseudo-solutions for something that is not specific, for uncomfortable or painful feelings that cannot be specified or labelled, and which are no less real for this. This doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t do stuff (i.e. that I shouldn’t try to succeed at stuff) but only that I shouldn’t do stuff for reasons that I am not admitting to myself. It is fine to try to achieve at tasks, but only if I am not trying to solve something else (something that I am not aware of) through these tasks. If this is the case then I am just confusing the situation and making things worse, and I am not even being honest about whatever it is that I am (supposedly) trying to achieve at. Even this I am not doing properly, because I am not doing it for the right reason. The whole thing is just a disaster. This kind of ‘needing to be a winner’ business is not too hard to spot: as everyone knows, if I need to be succeeding at everything the whole time in order to feel ok about myself then clearly there is something not ok about me.
The hardest thing to do when I am feeling bad is of course not to go overboard trying to achieve goals or targets (which is to say, ‘distract myself from the truth about myself with red-herrings’) but to spend a while every day ‘doing nothing’ and allowing myself time to notice my true feelings. This does not mean ‘brooding’ or ‘analysing’ or ‘trying to reach conclusions about what is going on’ but simply accepting what is going on rather than rejecting it – which is basic sanity when it comes down to it. What we are talking about here is pretty much the same thing as the poet Keats’ idea of negative capability, which can be roughly defined as follows –
Fast answers and easy solutions seem very attractive indeed when we are feeling bad but it stands to reason that this route is only going to provide – at best – a shallow, superficial form of self-confidence or self-esteem. Any sort of good feeling that is obtained this way is guaranteed to be not worth the paper it is printed on since it is the result of self-deception not honest work. ‘Honest work’, in this context, simply means learning to feel uncomfortable or bad without automatically opting for the quick fix. This is actually a far more important ‘achievement’ than success in any material task, and achieving in this way genuinely does make us feel good in ourselves.
MYTH : GOOD SELF-ESTEEM CAN BE OBTAINED BY ‘SELF-AFFIRMATION’
This is probably the most familiar ‘self-esteem myth’ – everyone knows this one, whether they believe it or not. The theory is that if I have low self-esteem it is because I am constantly sending myself negative messages, because I am always calling myself stupid, useless, pathetic etc. The cure to this unhappy situation – according to the theory – is to send myself positive messages instead, telling myself that I am the opposite to what the negative messages say I am. So I affirm to myself that I am a worthwhile person, that I am as good as everybody else, and so on.
By now it is probably clear what the problem with this simple-minded cure for low self-esteem is. By buying into the self-praise game (self-affirmation) game I am also buying into the self-blame (self-condemnation) game. I can’t have one without making myself vulnerable to the other. There is another consideration here too – both self-praise and self-blame are actually equally meaningless. Anything I say to myself about myself is totally and utterly redundant, which is to say, all ‘self-statements’ have zero information content.
Why this should be so is no big mystery. I can’t say anything meaningful about myself because I can’t get outside myself. Or, to put this another way, I can’t say anything meaningful about myself because I have zero perspective on myself. How can I have any perspective on myself when I am so close up to myself, when I actually am myself? If I did have perspective on myself (that is to say, upon my self-image) then by definition I would not be identified with this self-image, and so I wouldn’t care whether my self-image was slanted positively or negatively. I would see that it isn’t ‘who I am’ and so I would have equanimity with regard to it, which is the healthy state of affairs. In that case I wouldn’t have to worry about correcting the negative spin on my self-image and so there would be no need for the nonsense of self-affirmation.
The self-image has no perspective on itself and so it cannot say anything meaningful about itself. It doesn’t know what is true and what is not true, so it has to convince itself that what it says is true actually is true so as to give itself some sort of basic orientation. It is in the dark, in other words, and it is too frightened to allow itself to see that it is in the dark. It perpetually oscillates between one extreme and the other and it is quite incapable of seeing that one extreme is as meaningless as the other. The self-image (or self-concept) lives in a realm of self-deception, or ‘self-hypnosis’. It has the capacity to believe whatever it tells itself – in fact it pretty much can’t help believing its own story, its own ‘take’ on what is going on. Because of its lack of perspective the self-image lives in a sort of ‘twilight zone’, a shadow-world where anything at all can exert a disproportionate influence on it. Little things loom big and look very important to us when they are not, and so we can end up being totally absorbed or preoccupied with ‘false issues’. The result of this is that all our attention gets caught up in trivialities and we do not pay attention to what really matters. As in Plato’s famous analogy of the cave, the gullible self-image relates to the shadows on the wall as if they were real things and totally ignores the light that is real and which creates these shadows. We could say that it creates the shadows itself, without realizing that this is what it is doing, and then reacts helplessly to them. Its own outlook determines how it sees the world, and yet it does not realize this fact. This is a crucial psychological principle –
As Carl Jung says, in our normal ‘unaware’ (or ‘unconscious’) state we relate to our own projections as if they were independently existing phenomena. A more colloquial way of putting this would be to say that we ‘believe in our own bullshit’! So when my bullshit is upbeat I feel good, and when it is downbeat I feel bad. But whether I feel one way or another, it is still all just bullshit. As we said earlier, all of our self-statements, all of our ‘assertions about ourselves’ are equally redundant and so it is not really worth getting excited one way or another about them. Because of our overwhelming desire to ‘know for sure’ however (i.e. our total lack of negative capability) we buy into the game of self-praise / self-blame and as a result we end up losing the ability to see that we only believe our own positive or negative thoughts due to ‘heightened suggestibility due to lack of perspective’ and thus we go around and around from one extreme to another, either ‘raising ourselves up’ or ‘casting ourselves down’.
If I make myself suggestible (or vulnerable) to believing self-praise in other words, I am at the same time making myself suggestible (or vulnerable) to believing self-blame. The idea of ‘helping myself’ through positive affirmations is therefore a total disaster – my problem is the fact that I automatically believe my own arbitrary thoughts in the first place, not that I don’t believe them enough! What will help me out of this mess (the mess of being ‘psychologically unconscious’) is not ‘more of the same’ but to learn to get better at not automatically believing whatever it is that I happen to tell myself. This is of course simply another way of talking about ‘negative capability’.
MYTH : GOOD SELF-ESTEEM COMES FROM BEING ACCEPTED BY OTHERS
If we had said that good self-esteem comes from ‘successfully pleasing other people’ then it would of course be immediately possible to see the flaw in this. We all know that people-pleasing comes out of insecurity. We also know that it just doesn’t work anyway – human nature is such that if you go out of your way to be helpful you are just going to get exploited to the hilt. You won’t get any thanks, and what is more if you ever try to stop being so over-obliging people will get resentful and angry and call you ‘selfish’. But to say that good self-esteem comes out of being ‘accepted by others’ (or perhaps, ‘valued by others’) doesn’t sound so obviously wrong. The only thing is – it is wrong. By now we ought to be able to see why – if my belief in myself (or my confidence in myself) is dependent upon an arbitrary external factor (the acceptance or value given to me by the people around me) then how can this state of affairs be in any way desirable or healthy? I have to go along with whatever the prevailing social conditioning is if I am to be accepted, and this means that I am a slave to that social conditioning. If I live in a community of Nazis then I have to be a ‘good Nazi’ in order to be accepted and valued by my community, if I live in a community of highly intolerant religious extremists then I have to be a highly intolerant religious extremist, if I live in a community of alcoholics then I have to be a alcoholic, and so on. In order to feel good about myself I have to conform to what everyone else believes. This is a complete and utter abnegation of personal responsibility and by no stretch of the imagination can it be regarded as ‘mentally healthy’. Quite the opposite is the case since I have thereby failed in the most basic criterion of being an individual human being – I don’t have a mind of my own, I don’t ‘think for myself’.
Of course it is true that most communities are not made up of rabid Nazis, intolerant religious extremists or alcoholics. But the principle remains the same – giving these unusual examples helps to make the point perfectly clear, that’s all. The point is that if I rely on the good opinion of other people (no matter how sane or how balanced those people might be) for my own good opinion of myself then something is seriously not right. I am missing out on something – the ability to exist autonomous as an independent individual. If I buy into the game of social approval in order to feel good about myself I am straightaway making myself into a ‘slave to the need to obtain this approval’. I buy into the game of social acceptance versus non-acceptance because I like praise, but if I make myself susceptible to praise I am at the same time making myself susceptible to blame. It is as we have already said impossible to have the one without the other.
Anyone suffering from social anxiety is going to ask themselves exactly why it seems to matter so very much what other people think of us, even if we don’t know them and may very well never see them again in our whole lives. Why then are we so susceptible to such excruciating pain if someone, even a stranger, evaluates us in a negative way? One answer is to say that this is the cost of being ‘psychologically unconscious’. This term may be defined as follows –
By buying into an external authority (which is bound to be arbitrary, since it is in the nature of external authorities to be arbitrary) I immediately gain an easy way to assess or evaluate myself. All I have to do is to do meet certain well-defined criteria, and then I make the grade – I become ‘validated by the system’. This is a kind of cheat or short-cut since in reality there are no such ‘easy guidelines’ as to what life is all about or how it should be lived; as Krishnamurti says, ‘truth is a pathless land’. However, finding our own way is difficult and so we want a path, with signposts and well laid-out directions to go in, and so we buy into the path or map that society provides us with. It might be arbitrary (i.e. made-up) but at least it means that we don’t have to think for ourselves. The short-cut gives us to possibility of straightforward existential orientation and validation which we are very happy to have. All short-cuts come at a price however and the price is that where they lead us is not real. The ‘gain’ is make-believe – it is a hollow illusion. We never develop the ability to rely on ourselves to know ‘what is right for us’ and so we become dependent upon the system (even though the system is at root a fraud since it is arbitrary and it says it isn’t). Because I haven’t developed the ability to ‘think for myself’ (so to speak) I am helplessly dependent upon what other people think, i.e. –
If you evaluate me positively then I feel wonderful, and of course I like that. But in order to obtain the possibility of feeling good in this way I have to ‘buy into the game’. The flip-side of buying into the game is that if you evaluate me negatively (and this negative evaluation is often shown by the subtlest expression on someone’s face, or the merest suggestion of a look that they give you) then I will feel terrible, and I don’t like this at all. As we have suggested, this goes beyond ‘feeling good if you like me and feeling bad if you don’t’ – buying into the ‘system’ (i.e. the system of reference) means that we are given a way of conceptualizing ourselves and understanding ourselves according to the terms of reference of that system. The ability to describe myself and my situation in an unambiguously black-and-white way gives me a strong sense of security not just because of the certainty implicit in it, but because of the fact that I can talk about myself and my situation with other people have also bought into that system of reference and be easily understood by them. But the fact that I can only understand myself in the way that is allowed by the system means that I am a ‘creature of the system’; because I have bought into the system I have become a ‘construct’ of the system. I don’t really know myself – I just know what the system says I am.
But, as we have said, the system is only a ‘made-up’ thing – it is only a collection of arbitrary rules or criteria. It could have been formulated any old way and we would still take it just as seriously. The truth is that what the rules might happen to be doesn’t actually matter at all, all that matters is the false sense of security that having the rules engenders and that false sense of security is what the state of ‘psychological unconsciousness’ is all about.
In the rational-materialist culture that we live in we are encouraged to buy into the system in order to gain a sense of security, a sense of orientation and belonging. This means that we are given a mechanical way of obtaining what is called ‘self-esteem’. We follow steps ‘X, Y and Z’ and – Bingo! – we have the required result. The fact that we can’t see that the very idea that there could be such a thing as a standardized method for achieving good self-esteem is utterly absurd demonstrates very clearly just how psychologically unconscious (or unaware) we are, collectively speaking. Standardized methods are good for fixing car engines but not for helping human beings to become autonomous, creative individuals. How can a standardized method make me into an autonomous, creative individual? At the very best, all standardized methods can do is make me into yet another robot, bright and shining, fresh off the assembly-line.
The past was no better. The Establishment of the past was not ‘rational-materialist’ but ‘dogmatic-religious’. We were brought up to believe that human nature was inherently sinful or bad. Our only hope for redemption was to obey the strictly laid-down rules of the Church; the message was still ‘buy into the system and you shall be saved’. The doctrine of Original Sin meant that we were to seek salvation by submitting ourselves to constant criticism (both from within and from without) and constant ‘correction’. It does not need to be said that this approach is hardly likely to result in the creation of autonomous human beings, any more than the idea that we are all inherently bad is likely to result in individuals who have a healthy trust in their own inherent nature. The doctrine of Original Sin means that in order to feel good about myself I have to distrust myself, and believe whole-heartedly in the External Authority, the set of fixed rules which tell me how to criticise myself and correct myself. I am therefore supposed to get my sense of myself, my sense of belonging and orientation, my sense of ‘existential validation’, my sense of well-being, etc from this External Authority rather than from ‘who I really am’. There is a rather serious problem with this however and that problem as we have said has to do with the fact that the External Authority is a made-up thing – it is a phoney, a fraud, and so any sort of legitimization or validation I get from it is going to be equally fraudulent, equally lacking in any real genuine core of meaning.
Any defined system of reference is bound to be fraudulent. There is no way around this –
This is of course what we were saying when we were talking about pseudo-solution – the system of reference (in this case what we call society) is a systematic form of pseudo-solution, it is a collective and spuriously legitimized way that we have of avoiding the demand that life makes on us all, the demand that we find out who we really are and live life on this basis. Even though we might agree that it’s no good trying to feel good about ourselves by depending on what other people think of us this dependency on an external authority goes deeper than we might initially assume; it’s a bigger deal than we might like to admit. It is possible to get some idea of just how big a deal it is by looking at the idea that our very understanding of who we are is determined by other people. My understanding of myself is thus within someone else’s terms – which is the same thing as saying “You can do absolutely anything you want just as long as it lies within the guidelines that have been laid down for you.” On the face of it this looks like freedom, but it is not really freedom at all but the exact opposite; it is ‘false freedom’ – it is ‘freedom within a system which is imposed on you without your choice’. The point that is all too easy to miss is that if I try to obtain good self-esteem by being accepted by others then this necessarily means that I have to be the sort of person everyone else wants me to be. That however is plain crazy – the whole point about being a unique individual is that I am who I actually am, not who other people want me to be. What this means is that if I talk about improving my self-esteem I am missing a very important point – the underlying reason why I don’t feel confident or strong or comfortable in myself is because I haven’t yet discovered my self! In other words –
So here I am struggling to improve my self esteem when on the basis of a ‘self’ who I am not, which is clearly a classic example of a ‘journey to nowhere’. The prognosis for this particular endeavour is not good! Before anything else, I have to take the trouble to find out who I really am, which means becoming an autonomous being. Then, and only then, can I start getting somewhere real instead of continually building houses on quicksand – which is what happens when I try to correct or improve or develop myself in somebody else’s terms, within someone else’s frame of reference. Actually, it is not enough even to say this. Not only is it a waste of time and effort trying to improve myself according to the arbitrary rules of some external authority, it is also a waste of time and effort me trying to improve myself within my own terms. Why this should be so becomes apparent if we think about what it means to say ‘within society’s terms’ or ‘within my terms’. If I am monitoring, assessing and then if necessary correcting or improving my self-esteem within some sort of terms then this means seeing how I ‘measure up’ within an assumed framework.
The framework is the standpoint I am operating from – it is the yardstick I am comparing myself (or my performance) to. Now this is fine for certain things, certain types of performance (e.g. running the mile or improving my keyboard skills) but it is not so fine for self-esteem. The reason is that self-esteem is not a standardizable commodity, even though we might assume that it is. Or perhaps it would be better to say that ‘the self’ isn’t something that can be subjected to standards, so that I can turn around and look at it and say that I have a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ or a ‘mediocre’ self. Of course, the ‘self-image’ – as opposed to what we might for the want of a better term call the ‘true self’ – can be subjected to standards and thus be evaluated accordingly.
We can look at this in terms of ‘credentials’ – the better or more impressive the credentials the self-image has the better it feels about itself, the better is its self-regard. To give a rather crude example, if I have a really flash sports car I can say “I must be a pretty neat guy to have such a cool car”. This may sound stupid but that is the main reason we buy expensive sports cars – we may say otherwise but generally we buy items like this for their image-enhancing properties. Similarly with our friends, partners and achievements – they can all be used by the insecure self-image to help it feel good about itself. We hold up our possessions, our friends, our partners, our achievements to some handy yard-stick and assess them accordingly; this in turn provides a yard-stick for me to hold my self against and see how it comes out. If everything on my list comes out good, then I come out good. But is this really what we mean by self-esteem?
There two basically different ways to understand the concept of self-esteem. One would be to say that ‘esteeming’ ourselves is like assessing ourselves, and then finding ourselves ‘good’. I have a car that is shiny and new, top-of-the-range, and very expensive, and therefore it is a ‘good’ car. But can I evaluate my ‘self’ in the same way? On the one hand this sounds rather ridiculous but on the other hand that is precisely how the self-image works – its all about a ‘good’ image rather than a ‘bad’ one, its all about how close my picture of myself comes to the idealized image. If I am a woman, how close do I come to Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, etc? In this crude but nonetheless pertinent illustration of the principle, Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell is the yardstick I hold myself up to, and the glamorous world of fashion is the ‘arbitrary external authority’.
The other way of understanding the concept of self-esteem would be in a non-comparative, non-evaluative sort of a way. After all, how can I meaningfully compare my self to anything else when my self is unique? Only standardized, regularized units can be compared and assessed against a common framework. So if the self (who we really are not who we think we are, or who people tell us we are) is unique and individual then the only way to ‘esteem’ it would be in a non-comparative sort of a way and if this is true, then clearly there can be no method to it as such because if there is no comparison with an ideal, and no attempt to match up with the ideal, then there is no need for a method. The self, as we have said earlier, is not an object’ – which is to say, it cannot be known wholly from outside of itself. The self is the inside, and that inside cannot be turned into an outside, no matter how much we contort ourselves. This being true, how on earth do we go about esteeming it? The only real answer to this is that we can only esteem the self, by allowing it, by ‘not getting in its way’, so to speak.
The only true way to value the self therefore is to have nothing to do with it..! This sounds wrong to us – it sounds as if we are being irresponsible or neglectful or something like that. But a lot of things work best if we leave them alone. What this really means is being non-neurotic’ and not trying to fix ourselves and correct ourselves and improve ourselves the whole time. Instead, we just give ourselves space, just as you might give a friend space if they are feeling out of sorts. You don’t ignore them, you just don’t ‘press in’ on them too much and suffocate them with your attempts to make everything better, i.e. you are mindful of them in a spacious rather than a claustrophobic way.
My mistake is to think of myself as my own possession, to think of my self as being ‘mine’. Even to say this sounds crazy – of course my self is mine, I answer in indignation. If my self isn’t mine then what the hell is? How can anything be mine if my own self isn’t mine? How can the word ‘mine’ itself make sense unless ‘my’ self is ‘my’ own…? Crazy or not, there is sense in it. Psychologist Carl Jung has said that the true Self is always completely ‘other’, just as Professor Carse says that Reality is completely ‘other’. What this basically means is that it is ‘none of my business’ – it is not my responsibility. It is of course a classic mistake – the classic mistake – of neuroticism to think that everything depends on my successful intervention in order for it to run right. This is a complete ‘lack of trust,’ a complete inability to ‘take a risk’ – I think that I have to personally get involved to make sure that everything happens the way it should happen. Everything has to be ‘hands on’ and nothing is allowed the space to work out the way it was going to anyway, before I started interfering. And actually, of course, the most important things do work out exactly as they should if we leave them alone. Life itself proceeds absolutely beautifully all by itself and it always has done. It doesn’t need me to tell it what to do and it certainly doesn’t need my neurotic attempts to be in control of it. Life (or the universe) is not my creation, I am it’s creation and so the idea of me thinking that I have to be controlling it is absurd. It would be funny if only I could see it.
Just as ‘life’, or ‘the universe’ is not my creation, my responsibility, or my possession, neither is my ‘self’, because at root my ‘self’ is nothing other than the universe itself. It is not in any way different from ‘life’, or ‘the universe,’ or ‘reality’ and like life, the universe or reality it has nothing to do with me. Earlier on we were saying that there is a tendency in orthodox religion to deny the authority of the individual or autonomous self, and force us thereby to trust only in the External Authority that is handed down. We are brought up not to trust ourselves, our own intuition, but instead only trust what the establishment tells. But there are other tendencies in religion too. In the early form of Christianity known as Gnosticism (which has always been repressed by the Orthodox Church) the basic teaching was that deep inside us all is a ‘spark of light’ which is essentially not any different to God. This comes across well in the following quote taken from Alexander Roob’s (1997) study of alchemy and mysticism The Hermetic Museum –
Gnosis means knowledge, and the Gnostics acquired this in a number of ways. The first and most fundamental form of knowledge is good news, and concerns the divine nature of one’s own essence: the soul appears as a divine spark of light. The second is bad news and concerns the “terror of the situation”: the spark of light is subject to the influence of external dark forces, in the exile of matter. Imprisoned within the coarse dungeon of the body, it is betrayed by the external senses; the demonic stars sully and bewitch the divine essence of one’s nature in order to prevent a return to the divine home.
The same idea (the idea that our ultimate identity is that of the divine spark of light) is found in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas –
If they say to you, “Where did you come from?” say to them, “We came from the light, the place where the light came into being by itself, and was revealed through their image.” If they say to you, “Who are you?” say, “We are its children, the chosen of the living father.”
The idea is also found in the Gospel of Matthew –
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, [Jesus] answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’, for the kingdom of God is within you.”
The reader might be forgiven for wondering at this point what the relevance is in this diversion into the gospels, both of the Gnostic and ‘non-Gnostic’ variety. The answer is that if our ultimate identity is divine (rather than being ‘socially-constructed’) this puts a whole new perspective on the notion of self-esteem. If this is the case, then there is clearly no need for me to ‘work on my self-esteem’! The trouble is of course that this idea is just not acceptable to us, it doesn’t fit our way of thinking. From the traditional religious viewpoint it sounds blasphemous, from a psychiatric viewpoint it sounds either like mania or psychosis, and from the modern ‘scientific’ viewpoint it sounds perfectly ridiculous. This problem has a lot to do with the language we use, and the assumptions that lie behind our view of the world. It is of course natural to be a bit naïve about the idea that there hidden assumptions in our way of looking at things – we tend to think that our modern, ‘scientific’ viewpoint is objective and therefore that it is free from hidden (and therefore unexaminable) assumptions but this is no more true of our current way of seeing the world than it was one hundred, two hundred, or a thousand years ago. We are pretty much the same now as we were then – we unthinkingly accept the viewpoint that is given to us. We think our viewpoint is right because it happens to be the viewpoint we were brought up with, not because of any intrinsic special value of the viewpoint. Everyone thinks that their way of seeing the world is the right one – no matter what that viewpoint might be. The whole point about ‘viewpoints’ (or beliefs) is that they seem right to us when we don’t question them, and we don’t like to question our viewpoints because it is just too challenging.
One problem with our modern, so-called ‘scientific’ viewpoint is that it sees life and consciousness (a more advanced feature or refinement of life) as being entirely accidental. The implicit message in this viewpoint is that we are accidental or alien interlopers in a world that is dangerous and hostile or, at the very best, totally indifferent to us. We don’t really ‘belong’, we just came about as a result of some sort of a fluke. But this view arises out of a mechanist model that has been seriously challenged ever since the 1980’s. Although a lot of scientists no longer adhere to this view, it still thrives in the form of what E. R. Schumacher calls ‘degenerate scientism’ – a sort of garbled version of science that permeates popular culture. Stuart Kauffman, who has the credentials of being a Nobel Prize winner in science, is an example of a prominent scientist who does not think we are flukes in an uncaring mechanical universe – Kauffman suggest that life (and therefore consciousness) are ‘inevitable accidents’ in this universe, and so not accidents at all. We actually do belong, and so we don’t need to fight or struggle to prove or justify our existence. Children who are brought up in an environment of ‘conditional love’ tend to suffer from this same sort of insecurity. The message behind conditional love is that if you ‘do well’ (i.e. if you are what your parents want you to be) then you will be loved and accepted, but otherwise you will not. This of course denies who you actually happen to be, your true self. This is also the basic message that society (like a ‘bad’ parent) gives us –
What conditional acceptance means is that I (as I am) am not acceptable; it’s only if I make a special effort to ‘prove myself’ that I will be loved and valued. The snag here is that ‘I as I already am’ is who I really am, and ‘the person who my parents want me to be’ isn’t actually me at all – it is an act that I have to put on in order to be accepted. So out of the insecurity engendered by the lack of unconditional love I end up betraying my true self for the sake of a socially-acceptable ‘self-image’.
In the same way, the message implicit in our current ‘Pan-Global’ rational-technological cultural mindset is that if we not successful in controlling both our environment and ourselves things will go very badly for us. This is a disastrous message to believe because our attempts to control are bound to fail at some point or other, either sooner or later, and so believing that ‘failure to control’ is a terrible awful disaster dooms us to a life of insecurity and anxiety. Even when things seem to be going well for us the anxiety will be there somewhere, waiting to cut in. This implicit message, when believed, puts us in an absurd position – we end up fighting desperately to win in a struggle that we cannot ultimately win, and yet if we weren’t fighting to somehow come out on top, we wouldn’t need to fight to come out on top because when we don’t struggle to ‘correct the fault’, there actually isn’t any fault…
Control breeds the need to control: As soon as I start controlling I create the phantom of failure, which I then need to struggle against. Before I got the idea that I had to take charge of what is going on, everything was ok, but just as soon as I get the notion that if I don’t control then things will go against me, then I am committed to a life-time of struggling. This is like not believing that you will not float unless you struggle to stay afloat. Actually, struggling tends very much to make us go under; if we stop struggling we discover that we don’t actually need to ‘try,’ we discover that we float quite naturally, but it takes a huge leap of faith to stop struggling once we start because we are ‘locked into’ a controlling frame of mind. The assumption we all have is that ‘who I am’ is separate (or distinct) from the universe and that we have to keep on fighting to maintain and protect that distinct separate self. The universe is thus perceived as hostile force that will crush us, or annihilate us, if we let it (or if we can’t stop it). The realization that the universe is me and I am the universe means that this perception – which is the paranoid perception of the beleaguered and battered ego – never arises. The universe does not fear being crushed by what lies outside it, because there is no ‘outside’. Because we do not draw a barrier or boundary to hide within there is no ‘other’. Because we do not defend, there is no enemy. According to eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell in his classic work The Hero With A Thousand Faces (P128 -9), this is the meaning of the dance of Shiva –
“Fear not!” says the hand gesture of the god Shiva, as he dances before his devotee the dance of universal destruction. “Fear not, for all rests well in God. The forms that come and go – and of which your body is but one – are the flashes of my dancing limbs. Know Me in all, and of what shall you be afraid?”
The message here is the same as the Gnostic teaching that we all have the Divine Spark within us, and that this is our ultimate identity (rather than any arbitrary identity that we might have been given). This is really just a way of expressing the idea that we are not any different or any lesser than the whole Cosmos – that we are the Cosmos and the Cosmos is us. All spiritual teachings have said this, in various different ways, and if we get to the point where we genuinely understand this, than pretty obviously we will no longer look down either on ourselves or anyone else. How can the universe look down on the universe? When we are talking about the Self which has no limits or boundaries, the self which excludes nothing (which the alchemists called the Unus Reis, the ‘One Thing’) all questions of ‘better than’ or ‘worse than’ – all comparisons – disappear. I do not compare ourselves to you or him or her or anyone else because ‘we are all one’. It is of course true that most people, if you were to come out with metaphysical or philosophical ideas like this would look at you as if you were seriously deranged. And even if they didn’t look at you as if you were a headcase they would more than likely to point out that fine ideas like this do not actually change anything – that at the end of the day if you feel down on yourself the idea that you are one with all life, or one with the universe, isn’t going to be of any practical help. But what is of practical help is the attitude that proceeds from this way of looking at things. If I think that the only way I am going to feel good (or even half-way ok) is if I struggle and fight to improve my situation, then I am starting out from a false-idea of myself and so nothing I do is ever going to help me. How can it, when the ‘self’ that I am trying to help isn’t me in the first place?
But if instead of the positive way (which means fixing or correcting or improving the position that we start off from, without ever bothering to stop and examine that ‘starting-off position’ a bit more closely) I take up the negative way, which means questioning my assumptions, and taking the trouble to see what is really true, rather than unreflectively accepting what I have been told is true, then at least I stand a chance of starting off in the right direction. In fact being open to whatever might turn out to be true, instead of being closed to everything apart from what I already happen to believe, is all I need to do – all I need to do is stay open and stop narrowly judging and evaluating things, and thereby allow reality to unfold as it will, and everything will unfailingly work itself out. If I start off from the assumption that there is a problem, or that ‘my self’ is defective, then this assumed problem or defect will be indefinitely perpetuated (it will be perpetuated for as long as I keep trying to fix it) but if instead of ‘evaluating’ or ‘judging’ or ‘fixing’ I just gently and patiently notice what is there, and allow it to be there (or not there, as the case may be) without any violence or aggression or intolerance, I will eventually – however long it may take – discover that everything was perfect right from the very beginning.
The essential difficulty in problems of self-esteem has to do with ‘mistaken identity’. In the absence of a social milieu that discourages open-ended questioning, and which – on the contrary – imposes closed modes of thinking upon us, it is only to be expected that we end up identifying in a fixed or final fashion with a superficial idea or image of ‘who we are’ rather than exploring more deeply, and challenging the expectations that are (subtly and not-so-subtly) foisted upon us. What we call ‘self-esteem issues’ are in fact problems that arise inevitably from the superficial, severely limited and inauthentic nature of the self-image or ego that we have mistakenly identified with. Just as a shoe that is belonging to someone else and which is two or three sizes will create problems if we insist on wearing it, so to will the superficial, limited and inauthentic self-image create problems if we carry on in our lives persisting in believing that this socially-constructed identity is who we really are. Any attempt to ameliorate the pain of the badly fitting shoe will fail to get to the root of the problem – the only answer is of course to give up on it, let it go, and see what life is like without it. Needless to say, this is a risk which we are loathe to take, and we almost always opt (by default rather than by conscious choice) to stick with what we know, rather than take a chance with what we don’t know.
In the midst of our great and painful insecurity it is almost inevitable that if there is a massively powerful ‘external authority’ we will end up aligning ourselves with this authority in order to avail of the validation that this external authority offers us. This validation can be explained in terms of the feeling of being accepted, the feeling of being valued, along with the reassuring sense of certainty that we are doing the right thing in life. We can also explain the benefit that is bestowed upon us by the external authority in terms of a hugely increased degree of personal confidence, self-assurance and an utterly unquestionable sense of certainty about whatever ideas, opinions ands beliefs we might chance to hold. This self-confidence is however ‘cheaply obtained’ (which is to say, it is not obtained by any hard work on our part) and because it is so very cheaply obtained it is not actually worth anything. It is as if I cheat at a game of cards – I might win the game, but because I have cheated my victory is meaningless, there is no genuine satisfaction to be had from it. Similarly, when we obtain self-confidence and self-validation by aligning ourselves totally with the external authority we necessarily deny the truth of our own ‘inner spark’, which is the only place that true confidence (along with true creativity, compassion, peace, etc) can come from. Aligning ourselves with the external authority is, ultimately, a disaster since the external authority is – when it comes right down to it – a fraud. There is a saying, “A poor man cannot become rich by counting the wealth of his neighbour, even though even he does so night and day.” The situation we are talking about here goes way beyond this since the ‘rich man’s wealth’ in question isn’t really wealth at all, merely the illusion of wealth. Really, the ‘wealth’ of the external authority is purely virtual – it not meant to be examined too closely since it is entirely made of counterfeit bank-notes. So the sting is two-fold – not only do we betray ourselves, we betray ourselves for a false promise…
The false promise is the promise made to us by the mechanism of unconsciousness (that is to say, the ‘External Authority’), the promise that ‘everything will be ok if we buy into its schemes’. Unconsciousness promises safety and an easy life, but the truth is very different. We can define the unconscious state in terms of two ingredients – on the one hand there is an inner core of emptiness (or ‘weakness’) and on the other hand there is the unending, futile struggle to obtain a sort of false sense of security or comfort or strength or meaning. We need to struggle for the false sense of security because of the existence of the inner emptiness – we need the pretence, the image, in order to cover up the hollowness inside. What we are fighting for a substitute, an inferior substitute of the state of genuine well-being but the irony is that it is our constant attempt to ‘find advantage’ that creates the need to find advantage in the first place. It is the effort to shore-up or maintain the self-image that creates the aching inner emptiness which the self-image is supposed to cure. This is a classic addiction – if I am a heroin addict then a dose of heroin will temporarily ‘cure’ the painful symptoms of the addiction at the same time that it feeds the underlying problem. The superficial ‘self-image’, like Duff beer in The Simpsons, is both the cure for the problem and the cause of the problem in the first place.
Carl Jung warned over sixty years ago that in his view that we face a new danger, as distinct from the traditional enemies of pestilence, famine and war. This new danger is the danger of soul-loss, which manifests itself in the form of an all-pervading sense of meaninglessness, as well as in the symptoms of anxiety, alienation, loneliness, boredom and depression. Faced with this inner emptiness we respond in several ways. We respond by getting better at controlling the outside world, so that inner weakness is compensated for by formidable external strength. We respond by making our environment as distracting as possible, so that we can be ceaselessly preoccupied with superficialities, with plasma TVs and game shows and shopping malls. We also respond by trying to invent ourselves from scratch in the controlled world of our rational fantasies – we try to invent a soul for ourselves to replace the one we lost. But no one can invent a soul for themselves – the soul is not something we invent but something we discover and the way we discover it is through travelling what Jung called the Longissima via, the ‘long road’.
The long road is the road with no short-cuts, no tricks, no dodges, and no methods. Just as Robert Anton Wilson says that the only genuine description of the universe is the universe itself, so too the only method for going on the Longissima via is the Longissima via itself. In other words, the only way to do it is to go through life as it is, to take it as and when it comes, and not to try to find clever ways around the bits that we don’t like and thereby arrive at the destination without putting in the actual legwork. If there were legitimate short-cuts to the Longissima via then this would make a mockery of life anyway since anyone with sufficient expertise or sufficiently advanced technology (or enough money to hire a crack team of expert coaches) would be at a great advantage to the rest of us. But in this journey cheating doesn’t help – in fact we find that there are lots of penalty points awarded for attempts to cheat – and so we are all on a level footing here. Money doesn’t help and neither does formal education, or a high standard of living. Social position is no advantage either – a beggar has the same chances as a lord, a homeless person is on a par with a supermodel. Technology, like privilege in general, is not merely useless for this journey, it is worse than useless since it disables us and causes us to look for help or comfort from outside of us. It gives us false confidence. There are no experts at living life, no so-called ‘winners’, only people who are honest or sincere about ‘where they are,’ and there are no theories, no models, and no methods for ‘how to be honest or sincere’…
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.