Have you ever felt like someone interacts with an image or representation of you, that they’ve created and are feeding in their mind, rather than the reality of who you are? You can usually sense it while it happens, it’s often tiring, you might get uncomfortable; depending on the discrepancy between your identity and your interlocutor’s concept of you, your response might naturally be to emotionally distance yourself from them, your body may recoil in distaste, and you might feel like you want to stay away from such situations. It takes too much energy to interact with people who are trying to define you on their own terms, to shape your reality, to induce that they know how you feel or who you are better than you do. You may perceive it as an attack on your self-concept, it feels perversely counter-intuitive- if everyone did this we’d all be trapped in illusions, interacting with our own minds and their fabrications…the distances between us would grow and grow and there would be no genuine connection; authenticity and understanding the reality of another human being completely thrown out of the window. These fabrications are often based on archetypes, on previous experiences, on patterns we have formed in our minds, and shadows bred there. To a certain extent, there is something natural about it, as, in its purer forms, this process helps us make sense of everything.
Everything is mediated through the filter of our consciousness and making associations and creating our concepts of others is inevitable. Labelling. Establishing connections between subjects, to have a point of reference and know what to expect, in the process of interpreting reality and personality. Identifying differences in others, to see ourselves as separate and unique, to define ourselves in the light of this separation, to reinforce our ego’s supremacy. It’s also a survival mechanism, recognising red flags, so you know what or whom to stay away from, whom to trust, who may or may not represent a threat to your well-being. Thinking of people in patterns – the field of psychology is based on this. In the case of someone who has a personality disorder, for instance, it can be very helpful to have a name for what they are experiencing and how they see the world, it can make them feel understood, give them a sense of belonging, a sense of control over themselves and their emotions, encourage them to make a conscious effort to identify with the awareness behind their thoughts and emotions, rather than with a particular emotion (especially if it’s a negative emotion, like anger, fear) or a thought they may be experiencing, that may be intrusive, obsessive, and dictated by a disorder. Of course, on the other hand, there is also the stigma that comes with such labels, risking to be put in a negative light, being seen through that filter, being defined by a certain disorder or affliction. Unfortunately, some can internalise this, thinking of themselves and their disorder symbiotically, it can affect their self-worth. In general, it is quite limiting. Thinking of people in patterns or associating them with something you create in your mind can be limiting. It diminishes them, distorts their essence, reduces their whole identity to a tendency, an idea, a bunch of words, an echo- in the mind of ego-led individuals with narcissistic tendencies. If you interact with representations of people, with mental constructs, with objects, you don’t really allow yourself to see people for what they are. This is often because you may have internalised certain superficial ideas about the world and may be applying them to everyone, consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes it happens out of fear. Of the unknown, the uncontrolled, the unpredictable. A representation is something you have control over, an image you can mould to fit your world view, your ego’s supremacy, something you can annihilate in your head; a real person is something you can’t control, they exist outside the realm of your ego, and thus can be a threat to ego.
Re-defining someone, re-structuring their narrative and identity is problematic, because people don’t tend to like being told who they are, why they do the things they do, what their motivations, feelings, or thoughts are. They often dislike being told they are wrong in some way, faulty in their behaviour, life choices, thinking, identity. It will put them in a position of defence. Such interpretations can be offensive, and often deeply ingrained in the adviser’s specific belief system and incomplete perception of others and they function through projection. You can’t help but dislike or avoid someone who assumes or acts like they know you better than you know yourself, who tries to re-define you in ways you don’t identify with, it’s a natural response of self-preservation. It’s unpleasant to have someone interact with a version of you that doesn’t exist. In my case, someone giving me advice with such constructs in mind would find themselves stepping into a minefield. I know I have a resistance to accepting advice, in general, because I feel like I’m the one who knows what is best for me, but, often, if it’s reasonable advice, devoid of projections, formulated in a constructive way, and if I can feel it comes from a genuine place in someone’s heart, someone who doesn’t interact with a false mental construct, someone who believes in me and doesn’t claim to know what I want better than I do, doesn’t try to dictate how I feel, who wants to see me do well and be the best version of me, then I appreciate it. If, however, I can feel that a piece of advice is insincere, in the sense that it is centred around the adviser, it’s all about them and not me, all about their self-image/ego, their need to be in control, to reinforce their belief system, then I have resistance to it, I find it distasteful. (Unsolicited advice is distasteful in general.) There are some descriptors and emotions that I don’t associate with my self-concept, and I can’t stand it when others imply or assume it about me. Okay, this does sound like an egoic defence, we all have them. What matters is not letting ego dictate our interactions with or perceptions of others, and not defining ourselves in conscious or unconscious opposition with others.
This is particularly problematic when you think about the well-known mental process of ‘other’-ing when it comes to racial, gender, nationality, or sexuality differences, different religious or political beliefs, although it’s not restricted to these areas, for it can apply on many levels, personal and cultural. This process can have a great negative impact on human connections, because it obstructs the capacity to have empathy for fellow human beings; and it can manifest itself through passive-aggressiveness, animosity, or it can become especially toxic when it facilitates aggression. Narcissistic tendencies are prevalent in contemporary society. If you pay attention, you can see the seeds of narcissism very easily, and recognise the narcissistic way of relating to others as mental constructs, even in yourself. Depending on the degree of resistance determined by your ego, this awareness might make you more open to seeing beyond these representations. With an awareness of inner pride and prejudice, of the constant process of mediation, you may no longer be quick to reduce people to fabrications, project any misplaced thoughts and traits onto them, and interact with mental constructs. We are human, we are fallible, our perceptions particularly so. Since this often centres around the demands of the ego to see itself as superior to others, let’s have a look at narcissism. Sam Vaknin, a psychologist who specialises in narcissism, who is a diagnosed narcissist, provided an insightful description of the way narcissists relate to inner objects in their fantasy world. Additionally, he talked about the beneficial nature and use (beneficial to the narcissist, detrimental to everyone around them) of this defence mechanism and way of relating of the narcissist, refuting the common thought that (pathological) narcissists lack the capacity for emotion. They are simply no longer in touch with their emotions, and don’t have an understanding of them, because, at some point, they may have decided that emotions can be debilitating and destabilising, hence it’s better to detach and alienate themselves from them. Their emotions are experienced through a “cognitive analytical filter”. They also interact with others through these filters, rather than forming a genuine connection. The extreme cognitive distortions of others happening in the minds of pathological narcissists can be seen as an amplification of the process that even people of a more sound and reasonable mental configuration indulge in, albeit with more restraint.
“The narcissist has impaired reality testing. And the very essence or definition of pathological narcissism is a grandiose fantasy. A narcissist can’t make the difference between fantasy and reality. Also, because they interact with inner objects, they confuse inner objects with outer/external objects. You know the famous mechanism of snapshotting, where they interact with a snapshot of you. They take a snapshot of you and then they interact with it, with your representation, your avatar, your introject, not with you. What they do is they internalise external objects, especially significant objects, especially objects that can cause them pain by let’s say abandoning them, so they internalise these objects and then they continue to interact with representations within a shared fantastic space. And they can’t tell the difference. This is why they mislabel emotions. Narcissists can feel intense emotions. Many scholars speculated that perhaps narcissism and psychopathy are reactions, defensive reactions, defensive attempts to avoid very deep emotionality. Perhaps narcissists emote too much, too intensely. They are about to be overwhelmed by their emotions, so they isolate themselves from their emotions, they put up a fire wall, a fortress to avoid their emotions. The thing is they feel, they experience the emotion, but they don’t know what it is. Because they are divorced from reality, […] they experience their emotions through a cognitive analytical filter. They have to ask themselves what they are feeling. And then they compare their experiences, their reactions, their wounds, their affect, their behaviours, they compare all this to an internal database. A database where they have entries and listings for how people behave when. How people behave when they are happy, and so on.’” – Sam Vaknin
If we extrapolate this description beyond the context of pathological narcissism, and we recognise the resonance of this mechanism beyond those around us who are pathological, not only does the aforementioned process lead to an alienation from others because we don’t really see the reality of others, but also to an alienation from ourselves and our emotions. Because our culture becomes increasingly narcissistic, our relationships with reality tend to get warped, the filter between us and reality gets muddled. Since we don’t integrate certain parts of ourselves as it’s more comfortable to live in a fantasy world where we and the constructs in our minds are infallible, we also don’t properly integrate other people’s realities within our conceptual world. This happens especially when other people embody specific aspects that are reflections of parts of ourselves that we dislike or deny, that we consider to be negative.
Consciousness is a complicated terrain to navigate, even our own, let alone others’. This awareness, that everyone has an internal life we either know nothing about or only have a glimpse of, that all people identify and see themselves in particular ways, that their inner lives shouldn’t be confused with our mental constructs, and shouldn’t be reduced to the way we consciously or unconsciously restructure their existence in our minds- this awareness can only have a positive impact. Because it fosters connection and care, discourages violence, and makes us more attuned to the emotions and realities of others. Perhaps if more people had this insight, this awareness of discrepancy, there would be more understanding and kindness in the world. Perhaps in a less narcissistic society that values authenticity more than ego fortresses and self-centredness, kindness and empathy would be viewed as signs of strength, not of weakness or fakeness.
In the spirit of mental conversations with authors, I will include a more pessimistic view by the supreme lyrical nihilist, Emil Cioran, who believes we are all living embodiments of our own private dogmas, and we celebrate ourselves for it. Whilst his view doesn’t clash with what I wrote, since it reinforces the idea that each of us lives within the parameters of his or her inner universe, the pessimism lies in the fatalistic rigidity of this narrative and his conclusion that awakening from our “dogmatic sleep” would equal death.
“Life has dogmas more immutable than theology, each existence being anchored in infallibilities which exceed all the lucubrations of madness or of faith. Even the skeptic, in love with his doubts, turns out to be a fanatic of skepticism. Man is the dogmatic being par exellence, and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them.
We all believe in many more things than we think, we harbour intolerances, we cherish bloody prejudices, and, defending our ideas with extreme means, we travel the world like ambulatory and irrefragable fortresses. Each of us is a supreme dogma to himself, no theology protects its god as we protect our self. How to escape the absolute of oneself? One would have to imagine a being without instincts, without a name, and to whom his own image would be unknown. But everything in the world gives us back our own features; night itself is never dark enough to keep us from being reflected in it.
The man who does not adore himself is yet to be born. Everything that lives loves itself; if not, what would be the source of the dread which breaks out in the depths and on the surfaces of life? Each of us is, for himself, the one fixed point in the universe. And if someone dies for an idea, it is because it is his idea, and his idea is his life.
No critique of any kind of reason will waken man from his “dogmatic sleep.” It may shake the unconscious certitudes which abound in his philosophy and substitute more flexible propositions for his rigid affirmations, but how, by a rational procedure, will it manage to shake the creature, huddled over its own dogmas, without bringing about its very death?” – Emil Cioran on Unconscious Dogmas