WILL THE REAL ME PLEASE STAND UP
Perhaps the central task of psychotherapy is self-discovery, implying that the ‘self’ has been lost, buried under layers of something that is not ‘self’ or has not yet appeared. Often, the process of discovery requires an understanding of how an idealised self or ego has evolved over time. When we talk about egomaniacs we are referring to someone who is identified with the idealised self, and the power he or she can weald as a result of being able to manipulate their environment through this channel.
A common reason for people to begin therapy is when they reach a point where this idealised self is no longer viable. The costs of maintaining the façade have become too great. It’s not hard to predict the possible consequences for someone who has grown up trying to be perfect, successful and self-reliant and whose self-esteem has become largely dependent on earning the approval and admiration of others.
The sort of person the corporate sector will often recruit. And while everyone’s story is unique, this one has a familiar ring to it. Becoming more and more stressed in their pursuit of the success and adulation the ego craves, they reach a state of burn out and under certain conditions, depression. All it takes is for their team to lose a contract and in this fragile state, he or she breaks down. The self-image as someone who must succeed to feel OK about themselves has been mortally wounded and the brittle confidence which got them were they are has given way.
Although this is often a terrifying situation, I can think of many clients of mine who, months down the line, have been able to look back upon this crisis as a critical and very positive turning point. For the self to be discovered, with all of its creative potential, vulnerability, strengths and weaknesses, the ego has to give way. Sometimes people begin therapy before that point, while others can only accept that change is inevitable by experiencing a full-blown collapse and ensuing pain and fear.
It is part of a natural development for the ego to develop in such a way. In his book “Towards a Psychology of Awakening” John Welwood describes the evolution of the ego during childhood as a control structure to help us impose constraints on our behaviours and better improve our chances of survival. A child whose cheerful and agreeable disposition seems to elicit the responses from others that tell her she is acceptable, is learning to kerb her true nature in favour of what will achieve a greater sense of belonging. It’s a sound strategy at that time and place. Later in life however, when the overriding need for approval might hinder her maturing into a healthily assertive woman we could see how an old strategy might have become unhelpful and obsolete. As Welwood puts it, the ego’s ‘developmental purpose as a kind of business manager or agent that learns and masters the ways of the world’, has exceeded its remit. It now believes it is the owner of the business, not just the manager.
The sad truth is that whilst we have been striving hard for recognition, doing what we think we should, ought, have to, we have been increasingly distancing ourselves from our true self – a more rounded, integrated person who, without the need for such a hardened carapace, can express him or herself in ways that truly reflect their potential and what they value.