POLICE OFFICER had just pulled over a car for a routine
traffic stop. The officer strode confidently up
to the car, hands on his hips, with a bravado swagger as if he were fully
in control of the situation. He started to peer into the drivers window.
Suddenly, the man in the car pulled a gun and fired several shots. The officer
fell to the ground, screaming and crying in a frenzied panic, Ive
been shot! Ive been shot! Call an ambulance! Ive been
When the paramedics
arrived, they discovered that the officer hadnt even been wounded.
All the shots had missed. The only observable damage was that this tough
cop had wet his pants.
identity works. In one flash, all of the officers self-assured
control left him, and he was reduced to the helplessness
of a baby. Illusions of who we think we areand claim to beevaporate
in a puff of smoke. And if we havent learned how to live from the place
of a true identity, we will pay the price in trauma until we do learn how
We all derive identity from the world around us.
As infants, we are just a jumble of diverse biological processes over which
we have no authority, and our first task in life is to develop a coherent
personality which pulls together this fragmented confusion. Our
first sense of coherence comes from our unconscious identifications with
the persons around us. Then, as older children, we look around and see what
the world shows us. Some things in the world appeal to us more than others;
thats because some things purport to show us something about whats
missing in our own lives and to offer us some
knowledge of what seems to be hidden from us. So,
from all the things that appeal to us in the world, we create images of how
we want to see ourselves, and then we set about making ourselves
seen in the world so our images can be reflected back to us through
the desire of others.
business suits or purple hair and pierced lips, an image is an image. Its
simply impossible to opt out of the social order. Even anarchy,
in all its emptiness, is still a form of social identity, an artificially
constructed image, a desire to be desired. Sure, the outward image tries
to say, I dont care about what you think; in fact, I spit on
your opinion of me, but the psychological intent of the image is to
make itself seen by others.
persons desire to be desired with such desperate intensity that you can literally
see in their eyes the inner
they seek to fill.
But they never
can fill the void.
At best, their
self-styled image is only a fraud, a feeble attempt
to hide their pain from their own eyes. The gaping hole of their emotional
wounds from childhood can be decorated with tattoos, it can be pierced with
rings, or it can be draped with glitzy pieces of clothbut no one can
get rid of the truth by hiding it in
At worst, their
self-styled image becomes their only reality, a pathetic
lie and a living
No matter how much effort a person puts into his or her
image, its all a
psychologically speaking, because so much of our lives is
Erik Erikson, for example, in his writings on personality development, described
the conscious acquisition of a social identity in adolescence as one of the
normative crises of life. But this process of seeing
yourself reflected in the worldwhether as an adolescent or as an
adulthas its problems. Although developing a social identity has a
certain short-term value, whatever you think you are is, ultimately,
nothing but a vague
approximation of what you really are. And what you really are is revealed
in discrete moments of genuine encounter with your inner
In the story
of the police officer above (written well before the rampant killing of police
officers today) the officer encountered a profound truth about
himself at the moment when he believed he was in danger of dying. He found
out that, contrary to his self-styled bravado, he was, in that moment of
crisis, nothing but a helpless baby.
You might go
to great expense to project an image into the world. You might explain yourself
in endless detail to others so they will get the true picture
of you. You might offer your identity to the world as if it were a bowl of
jewels. But youre offering only a plate of stones.
In one episode
of the original Star Trek television series, a man tried to bribe Captain
Kirk with a bowl of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. The good Captain scoffed.
What good are these? Theyre just stones and pebbles. We can
manufacture all of them we want aboard our starship.
cant be manufactured either.
That is, in an
encounter with the unexpected, all of us react not according to what will
look good to others but according to our deepestand often
unconsciousvalue system. So if your values are nothing other than an
imitation of the values the world has created to market itself, then in a
moment of crisis or surprise you will find out quite shockingly how empty
advertising promises really are. If your values are nothing other than an
acquiescence to peer pressure, you will find out how easily your desire
to be accepted by others can send you right into self-destruction. If your
values are not grounded in wisdom and integrity then you will consistently
defile wisdom and integrity.
Early in the
1960s, Stanley Milgram, a professor in social psychology at Yale University,
conducted some experiments about
Although controversial by todays ethical standards, the experiments
revealed a dark side of human nature: many persons were quite willing to
obey someone in an apparent position of authority even if such
obedience meant inflicting severe pain on another person. Moreover, even
though the experiments were themselves a deception (that is, the electric
shocks the subjects administered to the victims were not real,
and the victims were actually pretending to feel pain as part
of the experiment), many of the subjects suffered considerable disillusionment
and trauma to discover that they had the capacity within themselvesin
obedience to authority and peer pressureto inflict such
illustrates an important point: What is revealed
about yourself in an encounter with your inner reality is not necessarily
pretty. In fact, it is the basis for all
Moreover, the fear of their own dark sides keeps many persons from developing
an interest in psychology.
this fear of the unconscious can manifest as a
Phobia, whereby the interior terror becomes projected onto external objects,
situations, or even the environment itselfsuch as a fear of the dark.
manifest environmental fears (fear of the dark, fear of storms, fear
of water, etc.) because a childs unconscious has not been sufficiently
contained by adult defenses. With proper emotional and psychological support,
a child will outgrow these fears. But pity the poor child with a parent so
afraid of his or her own unconscious that the fear
becomes passed on to the child like a contagious
fear of their own dark sides also keeps many persons
away from psychotherapy. But the point of
is to get close to your unconscious, disentangle yourself from the vain
attachments to the world that have trapped you, and learn the importance
of a value system grounded in wisdom that encompasses all parts
of your personality.
Or, you can just
wait until a trauma makes you an offer you cant refuse.
As odd as it
might seem, even something as ordinary as having a tooth pulled or extracted
can provoke considerable anxiety.
A tooth? you might ask. I dont get it.
Well, think about it. We all cut our hair, and our fingernails, and our toenails.
Notice, however, that these things grow back. Teeth dont grow back.
Of course, baby teeth are lost and replaced with adult teeth, but once an
adult tooth is lost, thats it. Extracting a tooth is like the
amputation of an arm or a legor a breast due to breast
cancer a hysterectomy, a miscarriage, or the abortion of a fetal
Technically, the loss of any body part can provoke a
castration anxiety. We commonly castrate male animals by surgically
removing their testicles so as to make the animals less aggressive or to
make them reproductively sterile. Sigmund Freud, in his philosophy of
psychoanalysis, gave a psychological twist to castration when he assumed
that all young boys felt an anxiety about losing the penis, and that all
young girls felt an anxiety about having lost
Jacques Lacan, however, understood that these
sexual images were just a screen covering an even deeper anxiety. Castration,
for Lacan, meant the horrifying recognition of our human fragmentation, the
very fragmentation that the infant has to cover up through its
identifications with the world as it builds up a coherent
In the loss of
a tooth, then, is a confrontationan encounterwith the reality
of bodily fragmentation and, ultimately, with death
itself. In essence, the loss says, Youre not as glamorous and
powerful as you think. Youre just a flesh-covered skeleton that can
break at any time. Your image of yourself is all a lie.
The loss of any body part, thereforeeven a
about such a loss, or even an
never be minimized. For with the bodily loss comes the loss of smug confidence
in bodily invulnerability. If you dont understand what youve
really lost, trauma will hit, and it will hit
Have you ever heard someone complain, I dont
understand it. I give so much to others, and yet I get no recognition
or respect. Whats wrong with this
Well, the world
is simply doing what it does best. It takes anything it can, from wherever
it can, from whomever it can, and it doesnt even bother to say,
Thank you. And its going to keep on doing it, no matter
how much you protest. The problem, then, is with the person who confuses
many persons in the helping professionsnurses, physicians, social workers,
counselors, psychologists, and so onfeel motivated to take care of
and help others. But all too often the motivation to be a caretaker derives
from a need to project a certain image of oneself into the world, an image
such as a peacekeeper that in itself might derive from a childhood
role within a family system of conflict. In such cases, the caretaking becomes
not much more than an exercise of authority and power over the patient.
It happens all the time. Check into a hospital sometime and see how youre
really treated. Its probably not with love.
words, many persons give in order to advertise an identity and
to maintain a position of power. This is
pride, not love, because love empties itself of worldly desires through
service, in order to give selflessly. Pride, however, makes giving
into a form of bribery, in order to get something bigger in
Maybe you will
say, Wait a minute. What can I give? I feel like mush inside. Im
already empty. I feel barren. It feels as if I have no identity. I have nothing
to give. Well, there is always something to give up, something that
everyone holds on to as a final defense: you can give up the pride
along with your secret hope to taste
for all the hurt and abuse you have ever suffered.
and Locus of Control
proposed the concept of locus of control (from the Latin locus,
place) to refer to the psychological place in which a person
puts responsibility for the outcomes of various life situations. Persons
with an internal locus of
control perceive that they can personally
over the outcome of a situation, whereas persons with an
external locus of
control attribute outcomes not so
much to personal actions as to the actions of other peopleor
the encounter in the complaint described at the beginning of this section.
I dont understand. These are the only words
of truth in the entire complaint. Of course this person doesnt
requires submission and true love, and that, sadly, is what he or she lacks.
When youre caught up in the unconscious desire to feel victimized,
it feels as if your life is being stolen from you. Youre always clinging
to what youre afraid of losing. You can never rest, and you can never
get enough in return to feel satisfied. In psychological terms, when you
have an external locus of control you essentially live in a perpetual
feeling of victimization, always blown about by the whims of the world around
you. But when you loveand function from an internal locus of
controlyou lay down your life for others. When you love, you have
nothing to lose, because you have already given up your
with the Aggressor
in Stockholm, Sweden, a bank robber held four bank employees as hostages
in the bank vault for six days. Oddly enough, when the standoff was finally
ended, it was found that the employees had formed an emotional bond with
their captor. This odd behavior came to be called the
Stockholm Syndrome. A similar thing happened
in the US when the heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped in 1974; two months
later she robbed a bank along with her captors.
All of this
shows that when an emotional trauma threatens a
persons life, one form of psychologicaland physicaldefense
is to bond with the threatening person. Thus, to preserve their lives,
individuals will emotionally identify with the aggressors rather than resist
them. Hence the name of the psychological defense,
Identification with the Aggressor. (In
contrast, and just for clarification, when victims of
domestic violence kill their abusers, it has been
called Battered Womens Syndrome.)
But make no mistake
about it. In a situation of total helplessness this sort of traumatic
bonding may serve to keep you alive, and it may help to preserve your
sanity, but it has nothing to do with real love
or genuine forgiveness.
Halloween. Mardi Gras. Masquerades. Our cultures are full
of ways we pretend that we can change our identities by changing our outward
In times past,
a persons hat really did identify his profession. And even today we
wear uniforms (uni- means one and form means
shape or outward appearance) which give one common
appearance to all who perform a particular job function.
Most of us, however,
understand full well that a uniform, in itself, does not mean anything. Unless
you have been trained to perform a job, no matter what uniform you put on
you wont be able to perform that job.
there is one uniform which does define us absolutely and which can never
be changed. This is the uniform of the body, and it defines us sexually,
according to reproductive function.
sexuality is really quite simple, being a function of biology. The problems
with sexual identity begin in the
Notice how children tend to believe that what is seen is the
real. If a child sees a man wearing a Santa Claus costume, the child
will think, That is Santa Claus. In the same way as a
child attributes reality to appearance, it often happens that individuals
will confuse their sexual functioning with the costumes by which they create
a sexual appearance. Theres even a clinical term for this:
But the truth
is that no matter what clothes you wear, no matter what kind of play you
enjoy, no matter whom you choose as playmates, no matter how you actno
matter, even, how you might change your body surgicallyyou can never
change your genetic reproductive reality.
Jung long ago realized that each of us has, in the unconscious, psychological
elements of the opposite gender. A man has his anima, and a woman
has her animus. Although Jung identified other parts of
the unconscious, which he called complexes, he didnt take his
ideas so far as to speak of
states. Today, we can understand these states as simply unconscious
identifications with the world around us.
All of this means that, regardless of the stereotypical gender roles and
identities created by our cultures, all of us have the individual capacity
to experience psychological elements of the opposite gender. So if you feel
out of place because you dont fit into societys image
of how a man or a woman should act, the problem may not be with gender
identity but with society itself and its rigid stereotypes of human
then, would anyone develop a desire to change reproductive reality? Well,
even if you understand the reality of the
the basic facts of lifereproduction and deathare still painful
realities. But as plain realities, they dont mean anything;
they just are. A fantasy of changing ones personal meaning by
changing ones gender (Gender Identity
Disorder) or ones clothes
Fetishism) derives from a misguided belief that
sexuality contains some mysterious, great secret that will release you from
the hard facts of death and social emptiness. So, at core, the fantasy, in
its very impossibility, represents an unconscious attempt to escape
or otherwise, really represent deep unconscious conflicts that, for the sake
of ultimate health, must be properly understood and resolved. But if
psychotherapy becomes nothing more than a
process to normalize fantasiesand even encourage you to act them
out in realitythen the whole point of true healing is sadly
you fail to recognize the inherent
of all identity in the first place, and instead desperately cling to the
fantasy that there is something wrong with your body, this fantasy,
like many other fears and fantasies, will only lead to great
From all that has been said so far, you might be able to
guess where loneliness comes from.
As long as you
derive your identity from the world around you, you have to be concerned
about losing it. Like a dragon in a fairy tale sitting greedily on its hoard
of treasure, your entire being will be caught up in defending what you are
most afraid to lose.
Here, in this
place of hoarding, is also the bitter core of prejudice. Its technical name
is xenophobia, a fear or hatred of strangers
or foreigners. For what is prejudice but your fear that the pleasure
enjoyed by an other will somehow burst the identity you are trying
so hard to puff up?
Nor can you be
honest with others because if you speak your mind you might offend someone,
and then he or she will turn away in a huff, taking your identity in the
process, leaving you empty and dead. Thats what loneliness
is. Its a fear of psychological death.
Here, also, is
the explanation for codependent behavior,
as when someone enables (e.g., makes excuses for, or lies for) someone
addicted to a substance (such as alcohol or cocaine) or a behavior (such
as gambling or pornography). The sad truth is that whenever anyone in the
addicts social system has too much to lose by being honest
about the addiction, then he or she is essentially as dependent on the addiction
as the addict.
the glossy advertising-agency image of lifeon the other
hand, is an embracing of all the uncertainty of your unconscious, an acceptance
of your essential vulnerability,
and a willingness to risk everything to trust in something far greater than
what you think you are.
Take it from
St. John of the Cross. He understood.
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Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal
and Social Psychology, 67, 371378.
2. Jacques Lacan,
The mirror stage and The subversion of the subject and
the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious. In Écrits:
A selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977).
3. See, for example,
Breast Cancer which reveals the scientific evidence for the connection
between abortion and breast cancer.
4. Rotter, J. B.
(1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of
reinforcement. Psychological Monographs, 80, 128.
Lacan Related Papers provides links
to numerous Lacan-related papers.
The Lacanian School
of Psychoanalysis in the San Francisco Bay area, offers training
in Lacanian psychoanalysis.
The San Francisco
Society for Lacanian Studies provides lectures and information
about Lacanian psychoanalysis.
St. John of the
Works of St. John of the Cross
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology
and its Practice:
Revenge, and Forgiveness
Deathand the Seduction
Questions and Answers
Trauma and PTSD
INDEX of all subjects
on this website