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dominance-subordination hierarchies characteristic of vertebrate society—of fish, birds, wolves, baboons: some animals are larger, stronger, or more energetic than others, and they bluster around and enjoy the advantages of unconditional dominance. This means that all the animals have to he most sensitive to interindividual signals and cues. This sensitivity allows each animal to be cognizant in some way of the part he is to play in the life of the group—that is, the extent to which he will assert himself, insist on his prerogatives in food monopolizing, mating, and so on, toward certain others in the group.
in other words, to maintain a delicate balance between self-assertion and the demands of living in the group, and he has an implicit awareness of his status vis-à-vis one or more others. Thus, man’s acute sensitivity to his fellows was foreshadowed in the earliest development of vertebrate interindividual stimulation.
the postulation that in sleep the ego gives up its vigilant direction of the organism’s perceptions; everything that the ego has chosen not to be aware of, in order to continue its delaying mastery over sensation, threatens to come to the surface when the ego takes some necessary respite. In sleep, the ego can only make valiant attempts to disguise that which does come to the surface; and so we have the complex symbolism of dreams by means of which the individual tries to tell himself things the ego cannot or will not admit. But
As we said earlier the main function of the ego is that of delaying responses; this is what frees the individual from a dependence upon direct reactivity to stimuli.
. As we said earlier the main function of the ego is that of delaying responses; this is what frees the individual from a dependence upon direct reactivity to stimuli. Now, it is by delaying action that the individual is allowed to scan his accumulated experiences for alternate approaches to a particular problem. He uses memory and past solutions to devise, in his mind, a solution to the present problem. Thinking is basically trial action, a “sneak preview,” so to speak, of the situation one intends to experience.
Obviously, trial action in detached thinking is possible only if the ego can delay response. Anxiety is crucial here, because the ego can delay response only when it controls anxiety. (“Keep a cool head” is shorthand for a more involved counsel: “Control anxiety while you present alternative courses of action in awareness, and choose rationally the one course which fits the situation.”) Thus, the warding off of anxiety is central to the time-binding, action-delaying, and cerebral functions of the human animal.
As Kurt Goldstein so well observed, the ability to withstand anxiety is heroic. Probably it is the only genuine heroism given to man.
Only if we understand how basic and natural this question is, can we also see why harsh and loveless training regimes are the most harmful to the child: they deprive him of his first and only secure footing. They oblige him to feel secondary to symbols. He is deprived of his animality without having been able to truly rejoice in it. He develops a
ALFRED ADLER (in Ansbacher, 1946, p. 358)
“The supreme law [of life] is this: the sense of worth of the self shall not be allowed to be diminished.
is “Who am I?” “What is the meaning of my life?” “What value does it have?” And we can only get answers to these questions by reviewing our relationships to others, what we do to others and for others, and what kind of response we get from them. Self-esteem depends on our social role, and our inner-newsreel is always packed with faces—it is rarely a nature documentary. Even holy men who withdraw for years of spiritual development, come back into the fold of society to earn
F there were any doubt that self-esteem is the dominant motive of man, there would be one sure way to dispel it; and that would be by showing that when people do not have self-esteem they cannot act, they break down. And this is exactly what we learn from clinical data, from the theory of the psychoses, as well as from anthropology. When the inner newsreel begins to run consistently negative images of
one’s worth, the person gives up. We see this clearly in depressive withdrawals and schizophrenic breakdowns.
Status and role are basic to an understanding of human behavior because they tell the individual what he should do in a particular social situation, and how he should feel about himself as he does it.
Status and role serve further to make behavior predictable, so that the meaning in everyday life becomes dependable; the individual can count on others to behave according to his expectations. Role and status are a shared frame of reference that makes joint action possible; they are society’s scenario for the theatrical staging of the cultural action plot.
And, as in a high-school play, everyone scrambles for the lead parts. Identity is inseparable from the role one is assigned. The self-reflexive animal asks continually: “Who am I? How am I supposed to feel about myself in this situation?
How are others supposed to feel about me?” The answer to the last question, particularly, is the most convincing way of finding out who one is. The child derives his identity from a social environment. The social environment remains to his death the only source for validating that identity.
Most of our interpersonal fantasy life is merely role-taking in advance of projected action. We carry on imaginary dialogues of: “Then he will say …” “And I’ll answer …” “To which he will probably respond …” and so on. We do not let our ordering of the world rest for a moment. Probably, if most of us had our way, we would try to maximize the predictability of everyone else, while leaving ourselves free to inject novelty into our relationships.
. In the social encounter each member exposes for public scrutiny, and possible intolerable undermining, the one thing he needs most: the positive self-valuation he has so laboriously fashioned. With stakes of this magnitude there can be nothing routine about social life. Each social encounter is a hallowed event.
present an infallible self is to present one which has unshakable control over words.
However, there is a more subtle aspect to this mutual protection of fragile self-esteem. We have already touched on it: not only do words enable us to protect ourselves by confidently manipulating the interpersonal situation; also, by verbally setting the tone for action by the proper ritual formula, we permit complementary action by our interlocutor. That is, the ability to use formulas with facility actually implies the power to manipulate others indirectly, by providing the symbolic context for their action. We know this only too well, at least subconsciously.
“When we discover that someone with whom we have dealings is an impostor and out-and-out fraud, we are discovering that he did not have the right to play the part he played, that he was not an accredited member of the relevant status” (1959, p. 58).
Status, remember, is
In other words, we must feel that the performer deserves his status, and if he didn’t deserve it he wouldn’t he able convincingly to play it.
What we call the psychiatric syndromes are, from a sociological point of view, theatrical monstrosities to whom we cannot expose our fragile self-esteem. The manic seems to make a frantic bid for word power, and succeeds only in creating massive discomfort: “Oh, there’s the doctor who was so nice to me! Look, everyone; there’s the most wonderful doctor in the world. Oh, I love him, I do love him, he is so superwonderful. Here, let me straighten your glasses, so you can look as handsome as you are wonderful.
If you reveal the fictional nature of culture you deprive life of its heroic meaning because the only way one can function as a hero is within the symbolic fiction. If you strip away the fiction man is reduced to his basic physical existence—he becomes an animal like any other animal. And this is a regression that is no longer possible for him. The tragic bind that man is peculiarly in—the basic paradox of his existence—is that unlike other animals he has an awereness of himself as a unique individual on the one hand;
and on the other he is the only animal in nature who knows he will die. As Laura Perls so vividly put it, man is suspended between these two poles: one pole gives him a feeling of overwhelming importance and the other gives him a feeling of fear and frustration
They helped us understand why growth and change were so difficult, even impossible for most people. The challenge of growth and change always goes back to one’s earliest childhood, to his basic character. In order to grow he needs to renounce precisely that form of comfort and salvation that have become inseparable from his deepest values as these are grounded in the muscles and nerves of his organism.
as Camus and the existentialists have reminded us, such a growth crisis has elements of a suicide crisis because if it is authentic, one’s life is thereby already almost ended and it would be but a small step to completing the ending physically; suicide may be a real temptation at this time because one has no strength left, no rooting in a sustaining source of power: when, like Lear, a person has thrown off his cultural lendings, he is as weak and helpless as a newborn babe. The question of personality growth and change, if it is deep-going and authentic, is usually whether one will end in madness or suicide or whether one will, somehow, be able
That is why the first task of psychotherapy is to free the person from other people’s opinions; he learns not to he crushed because someone says his tie doesn’t match, or he has ugly ear lobes, body odor, or is not a good mixer. This is why therapists often put such a low valuation on the mind, on thought processes: the mind is the social self, the ways we have learned of attuning our self-esteem to the expectations and valuations of others; the mind automatically channels our self-esteem into society’s roles.
The person has to learn to derive his self-esteem more from within himself and less from the opinions of others; he has to try to base it on real qualities and capacities, things he can make or do, as Goethe argued, and not on the mere appearances that others like to judge by. He has to try to get as many ways of earning self-esteem as possible, to constantly broaden his skills, the things he genuinely takes pleasure in, in place of what others think he should take pleasure in.
And the reality of man’s situation is that it is one of despair. Whatever idols man remains rooted to are idols designed precisely to hide the reality of the despair of his condition; all the frantic and obsessive activity of daily life, in whatever country, under whatever ideology, is a defense against full self-consciousness.
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