Escaping the Self-Image Trap

Posted on January 23rd, 2017

Our view of ourselves is built up through an emphasis on key qualities, ways we see ourselves akin to or standing out from others, whether positively or negatively. These can be intelligence, beauty, accomplishment, compassion, strength, wisdom, or conversely, stupidity, ugliness, failure, selfishness, weakness—in fact, any possible human quality can be seen as ours.

One common way we heighten the key qualities we ascribe to ourselves is by pushing their contrasting shadows away from us, usually by projecting these out onto others. We want to seem thin, so we focus on how someone else is fatter than we are. We want to be smart, which means contrasting ourselves with someone less smart.

Doing this may make us feel more secure. But no matter how hard we try to get rid of the contrasting characteristics, they always surround us. This is because our minds see and understand things through comparison and contrast. Success needs failure and failure needs success; wealth requires poverty, but poverty is only poverty in contrast with wealth. We need the qualities we reject so that we can see the ones we identify with, but we also need them not to be ours. So we push away every hint of the qualities we don’t want to identify with.

Our reliance on contrasting ourselves with others creates an unstable inner life, always in need of defending and shoring up. This makes us anxious, as we try to avoid seeing the more diffuse reality of who we actually are—honest and dishonest, intelligent and dumb, accomplished and fumbling. It also makes our relationships with others narrow and brittle, since it leads us to shape our view of others as either better or worse than ourselves. In this way, we can become outwardly enviable or contemptuous, while inwardly we create ongoing suffering for ourselves.

There is another way to live, which is to grow through balancing opposites. Hubris can be balanced by accepting humility. Seriousness can be balanced by accepting lightness. Powerfulness can be balanced by accepting powerlessness. This wider view of ourselves, allowing both sides of any quality to flow through us, opens the doorway to reconciliation with ourselves.

When we are able to hold both sides of what may initially seem contradictory, we become less stuck in needing to appear in any one particular way. The freedom this brings allows us to have a broader, deeper experience of our lives and of the world around us. Through transcending opposites, we become self-liberating.

Posted in Change | Individual Counseling

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.