Stuck in the Middle, paper collage, 2022
The ego is not master in its own house.Sigmund Freud
I made a trip to my favorite used bookstore on Saturday. They have the largest and most eclectic psychology section of any local bookstore I know, and since I began Freud’s New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis a week or so ago, I’ve been yearning for a deeper dive into psychoanalysis.
Now, I could have (and nearly did) walk out with a large stack of books, from Fromm, Erikson, Horney, Freud, and Piaget, to Ernest Jones and Lawrence Kubie. But I settled on a copy of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, Ernest Jones’s Papers on Psychoanalysis, and Jung’s Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, all respectable choices, I think.
I spent some time with the Jones and Jung texts yesterday, and in the process an idea came to mind that I think is worth sharing. You see, it occurs to me that, no matter which theoretical framework we use to describe our inner conflicts—whether we’re talking about id, ego, and superego, persona, self, and shadow self, basic anxiety, or the will to power—we are always talking about a relationship, or psychological condition, characterized by self-distrust.
Indeed, to my mind, the Freud quote above speaks to that sentiment exactly: The ego is not master in its own house…because the ego can’t be trusted. The ego is born out of a profound sense of self-distrust. A distrust of our instincts. A distrust of our exploration and expression of those instincts, both positive and negative. A distrust of our opinions, of our perceptions, of our autonomy and sense of personal agency. All of which we begin learning at a very young age from parents, teachers, and other social influences, and all of which grow, deepen, and change over the course of our lives.
If I were to hypothesize that there was one mental process, one singular underlying mechanism at the heart of our inner conflicts, something like a primary, or basic, self-distrust would be it. I think a great many of our anxieties and destructive tendencies stem from this condition of self-pitted-against-self, and our ego and its defenses originate from the same.
So, what does self-distrust look like? What’s the logic behind it? Some examples:
People who are overly critical of other people’s habits do not trust themselves to manage their own habits. I know someone who has a variety of habits that could probably—for her own sense of wellbeing—use some improvement, including watching the news excessively, spending way too much time gossiping about other people and telling them how they should be living their lives, and drinking (by her own admission) too much. Ironically, she is great at identifying and criticizing these behaviors in other people. Even more interesting is the strength of her emotional responses. She doesn’t just dislike people who mirror these same tendencies. She hates them. She condemns them. She speaks like she’s somehow better than they are. What I think: she doesn’t hate people who have similar bad habits. She doesn’t even necessarily hate the habits themselves. She hates that she cannot trust herself to regulate her own behavior. So deep is that sense of self-distrust and her hatred of it that it manifests as a kind of loathing directed outwardly at anyone who shows her who she really is.
It is also true that some people resent others who they perceive as being more attractive, successful, confident, or charismatic—not because they don’t possess those qualities—because they don’t trust they can actualize similar potentialities within themselves.
Further, it occurs to me that phobias are a powerful sign of self-distrust, even when the object/creature/situation we’re afraid of has a legitimate and very rational “fear factor,” either in the way of an inherited predisposition (i.e., there was a time when snakes and spiders posed real threats to human life and so we often have a reflexive and innate fight-or-flight response to them) or it’s learned by association (i.e., I got bitten by a spider when I was a small child, and I’ve been afraid ever since). It is important to remember, though, that these associations grow, deepen, and change over time. What was once a rational concern may morph into an irrational, panic-inducing fear under certain conditions, as during times of increased stress or following a traumatic event. What I believe: the object/creature/experience that elicits fear in a phobia is a projection from the unconscious. If you have a phobia, there is something in your environment that you very gravely distrust, even to the point of being debilitated by it. But what you distrust isn’t out there. It’s inside of you.
A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get into accord with them: they are legitimately what directs his conduct in the world.Sigmund Freud
Lastly, there is the matter of perfectionism, of unrealistic standards, or living within very narrow, rigid, or dogmatic limits. All of which betray a kind of self-distrust. At the heart of every, “I can’t do that because that’s not who I am!” or “I have to do x because that’s the only option!” or “I can do anything but that!” is its opposite. So blinding is our sense of self-distrust that we morph our instincts, impulses, and desires into their opposites. In this case, the truth is more uncomfortable than words. Because we rarely, if ever, see that the Self is what’s suspended between unrealistic alternatives, between “should’s” and “have-to’s” and “I-can’ts”. There you are—your imperfect self, the alternative you never even considered, the thing you absolutely cannot be, or rather, don’t trust yourself to be. And you’d rather snuff out your inner light entirely, morph yourself into something tragically unrecognizable, than put one foot in front of the other and trust yourself to go out and be yourself in the world.
Ultimately, though, I believe we are the choices we make. What’s important is recognizing the ways in which we fail to trust ourselves and rebuilding that trust. It seems a sad fact that we can learn to betray ourselves in an instant, and it often takes a lifetime to understand what it means to accept and love ourselves.
In closing, I feel it incumbent on myself to say that the examples above come from my real life. There’s plenty of me in here from a years-long (but now gone), panic-inducing fear of spiders to the last paragraph on perfectionism and rigid limits. So, if you see yourself in any of these examples, please don’t think I’m picking on you. This is me.