Image and Ego 1: Bruised, Inflated, or Right-sized?
An accurate fix on the person in the mirror
Posted Nov 06, 2011
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.
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."
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.
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.