The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

Image and Ego 1: Bruised, Inflated, or Right-sized?

An accurate fix on the person in the mirror

In these next few columns I'll talk about ego and image, two big factors when it comes to self-perception. Today's culture places enormous value on image. You want to project yourself in the best possible light, but so does everybody else. This makes for inevitable competition. We often fret over what people think about us, or act tentatively in situations where we want to look good. Typically this kind of self-monitoring takes the form of negative thoughts like, "I don't want to appear too eager," "look clueless," "act nervous," and so forth. Fill in your own blanks. When thoughts like these arise we can feel cautious, insecure, even afraid.

Feeling that we don't measure up is stressful. The discomfort automatically recruits mental tricks that protect an individual from anxiety and keep internal and external threats from awareness. People are most often unaware of their ego defenses operating in the background, but when they are it is painful. Defense mechanisms help us cope with anxiety at times when our image is threatened, which raises an interesting point about human nature that in essence we hide from ourselves.

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 Our self image almost never matches up with the way others see us because everyone wears a mask. Settled research shows that the nice guy in the mirror comes up short when compared to the judgments of others because we see our mask rather than the person we actually are. Think about it for a moment. When dealing with other people we continually make snap judgments: He's needy, She's self absorbed, This one is competitive, That one's walled off. Some people are transparent, as if they had been X-rayed, while others are harder to read. But we form an opinion nevertheless. When we shine the light of scrutiny on ourselves, however, we are opaque. We cannot get past the mask and therefore don't apprehend the judgments others make about us. The ancient wisdom, "Know thyself," is still sound advice especially because of human nature's tendency for opacity. As Carl Jung said, "It takes a lifetime of effort to discern about ourselves what others are able to detect at a glance."

 

self deception

Avoid self-deception, that's the trick.

Ego defenses operate on several levels that range from healthy to pathological. Here's a quick primer to help get a more accurate fix on the person in the mirror. At the highly adaptive level we find examples such as sublimation, or channeling potentially disruptive feelings into socially acceptable behavior (e.g., boxing or playing tennis to drain off anger, deflecting sadistic impulses by becoming a prison guard). Humor emphasizes a situation's irony, lightly acknowledging its distressful aspects on one hand while "skirting around" them by witticism. Compartmentalization walls off unpleasant conflicts and consequences, keeping you from feeling overwhelmed when your plate is full. At the adaptive level you might  finish a deadline, spend time with family next, and handle finances after that by focusing on one thing at a time. At a less adaptive level you might compartmentalize adulterous affairs from your leadership in the schools, or money laundering from your position in the church.

      At the action level defenses handle unpleasant feelings by acting out instead of facing them and reflecting on what they mean. Thee examples: You can procrastinate, turn your back, or literally run away. In passive aggression, a superficial cooperativeness masks hidden hostility or resentment. Action-level defenses all work, but not for long. Repeatedly turning to them opens you up to being seen as difficult, immature, and someone best avoided. When emotional conflicts are acted out they frequently express as alcohol or drug abuse, delinquency, or antisocial behavior. Help-Rejection illustrates how a cleverly passive expression of aggression handles stress indirectly. I call this the "Yes, but..." defense because individuals disguise their hidden hostility by complaining and repeatedly asking for help, but then rejecting whatever solutions are offered. One suggestion after another is turned away with, "Yes, but ...", and the game continues.

 Defenses at the disavowal level all inhibit thought in one way or another. Rationalization and justification make excuses with elaborate, logical, and self-serving but inaccurate explanations. You weren't fired for poor performance but because you didn't kiss up to the boss; or it was ok to steal because it went to a good cause. Intellectualization is particularly isolating. Others might praise your handling of crises, for example, because you never fall apart or let emotion get in the way, or you latch on to "what needs to be done" at a funeral rather than acknowledge the sadness that anyone else would feel. But by resorting to abstractions, you split emotion from thought. Related defenses are magical thinking and fantasy. In displacement, you transfer unacceptable feelings to a less threatening substitute: slamming the door instead of hitting your spouse, snapping at the kids after an argument at work, or kicking the dog instead of telling a superior to buzz off.

 

Who's the farest of them all?

Mirrors rarely tell the truth.

When all else fails you can always fall back on denial. You seek a second opinion rather than face a medical diagnosis, or project  unacceptable thoughts or impulses onto someone else. Homophobia is a classic example of this defense. So is calling someone "a stupid idiot" when you are losing an argument. Denial refuses to acknowledge a threatening reality that others readily see. As Bill  Paxton's character in Aliens says as the monsters close in, "This is not happening, man!"

  Here is your homework: Pay attention to what you say and do, and see if you can detect the usual defenses you use. It only takes willingness and a desire to get a more accurate fix on the guy in the mirror. You may not like the character you see at first but the effort is worth it because with practice you will get to replace that image with the character you'd rather be. In future posts I'll talk about self esteem, how making decisions builds a strong ego, and why you are never a jerk while everyone else is.

 Follow me @Cytowic on Twitter,  Like my page on Facebook or visit my Website

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

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