We have arrived at an interesting moment in the evolution of our species where a smart person in a first world culture is pestered by two contradictory feelings, first that he is as special a creature as nature has yet produced and second that he’s not very special at all, just excited matter here for a while and off again into universal dark matter.
This first feeling inflates him and makes him want to puff out his chest and preen a bit. This second feeling makes him want to crawl in a hole, act carelessly, or sit inert on the sofa. How unfortunate for a creature to be buffeted in such contradictory ways!
These twin feelings lead a person to the following pair of conclusions: that while he is perhaps quite smart he is nevertheless rather like a cockroach, trapped with a brain that really isn’t big enough for his purposes, perhaps trapped in a corner of an academic discipline, a research field, a literary genre, or in some other small place, trapped by his creatureliness, and trapped by life’s very smallness.
I would like to dub this the god-bug syndrome: the prevalent and perhaps epidemic feeling of greatness walking hand-in-hand with smallness that plagues so many people today.
This is not, to use old-fashioned language, some sort of “neurosis” or “neurotic” belief. This is the quite sensible apprehension that there are two ways to look at life, as poignantly special and as pitiably worthless; that both views, while they clash, are entirely real and appropriate; and that a person can cycle between these two views almost minute by minute, feeling equal to life and up to life’s challenges one second and pathetically inept and unequal to even thinking about making dinner the next.
This mix of reasonable self-pride and reasonable self-pity, where what may be a completely healthy narcissistic attachment to one’s own specialness collides with existential reality, produces people who look confident one moment and ineffectual the next, motivated one moment and apathetic the next, sober and hard-working one moment and self-indulgent and addicted the next. How can a person brim over with life energy and big plans one moment and feel suicidal the next? He can cycle exactly that way because of the god-bug syndrome.
It is startling that the same person can feel so grand and also so very small. Yet we see that picture all the time as evidenced by the chronic sadness, mood swings, cycles of effort and lethargy, and secret self-soothing vices that so many smart people manifest. This college professor is famous for his theories and his addictions; this painter is exhibited everywhere and a chronic hoarder at home; this physicist is brilliant by day and an insomniac night crawler; this lawyer can’t be out-argued but has ballooned to three hundred pounds. This is the god-bug syndrome in action.
Traditional psychologies have considered this tension a disorder and have coined phrases like “delusions of grandeur” and “inferiority complexes” to try to capture something of this “pathological” dynamic. But at heart what we are talking about is not pathology but an intense conflictual knowing, a knowing that we are worthy smacking up against a knowing that we are just passing through: a knowing, that is, that we matter and that we do not matter. This is a true and not pathological understanding. Every smart person possesses this understanding and can’t help but feel distressed by this understanding.
In the past, this syndrome has indeed been pathologized. In the language of Adler, a disciple of Freud’s, what we are looking at is a superiority complex driven by a hidden inferiority complex or an inferiority complex driven by a hidden superiority complex. Adler put it this way: "We should not be astonished if in the cases where we see an inferiority complex we find a superiority complex more or less hidden. On the other hand, if we inquire into a superiority complex and study its continuity, we can always find a more or less hidden inferiority complex.” Adler’s god-bug is made up of two complexes. In natural psychology we see this phenomenon as unfortunate and in the existential sense absurd but not as a mental illness.
In natural psychology, we expect to see this. The self-inflation that Adler dubs a superiority complex and that the psychoanalytic thinker Karen Horney calls the idealization of the self and the self-deflation that Adler names an inferiority complex and that Horney identifies as the despised self, each in their estimation located in a walled-off “unconscious” place that puts the person out of touch with his self-inflations and his self-deflations, we see instead as the quite reasonable outgrowth of the experience of singularity and uniqueness, on the one hand, and contingency and shortfalls, on the other.
We are god-bugs. That is the nature of this current experimental model of our species.
Natural psychology also proposes a way out of this dilemma; or, if not a way out of it, a way to deal with it as effectively as it can be dealt with. If you construct an idea of meaning that takes these very matters into account, so that both your next accomplishment and your next disappointment are accounted for in your personal picture of value-based meaning-making, you can get off your high horse and you can also get up from the dirt. By taking charge of your construction of meaning, you can maintain a steady identity, one characterized by a new modesty and a new strength.
Your brain can conceptualize ideas as abstract as the relationship between energy and matter; it can produce strings of words and strings of musical notes that evoke tremendous feeling; it can place itself in the vast universe and see itself living and dying. It can imagine, calculate, remember, and more. It has to feel special. At the same time it knows perfectly well all about its limitations and its fleeting nature. This god-bug syndrome is completely natural and exactly what you would expect a creature like us to experience. Now we must deal with it.
If you would like to learn more about how natural psychology conceptualizes these matters and actively deals with them, please visit www.naturalpsychology.net.
I am a psychotherapist, bestselling author of 40 books, founder of natural psychology, and widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach. Learn more about natural psychology and access the groundbreaking Natural Psychology: The New Psychology of Meaning at www.naturalpsychology.net. Learn more about me at ericmaisel.com or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.