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Identity —
and Loneliness

 

 

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Page Contents: Introduction / The Problem / Encounter—and Trauma (Peer Pressure; Fear of Psychotherapy; Castration Anxiety) / Pride and Love (Locus of Control; Identification with the Aggressor) / Identity and Sexuality / Loneliness

 

Introduction

A 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 driver’s 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, “I’ve been shot! I’ve been shot! Call an ambulance! I’ve been shot!”

When the paramedics arrived, they discovered that the officer hadn’t even been wounded. All the shots had missed. The only observable damage was that this tough cop had wet his pants.

That’s how identity works. In one flash, all of the officer’s self-assured control left him, and he was reduced to the helplessness of a baby. Illusions of who we think we are—and claim to be—evaporate in a puff of smoke. And if we haven’t learned how to live from the place of a true identity, we will pay the price in trauma until we do learn how to live.

 


 

The
 
Problem

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; that’s because some things purport to show us something about what’s 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.

  

Whether it’s business suits or purple hair and pierced lips, an image is an image. It’s 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 don’t 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.

  

And some persons desire to be desired with such desperate intensity that you can literally see in their eyes the inner emptiness 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 cloth—but no one can get rid of the truth by hiding it in plain view.

At worst, their self-styled image becomes their only reality, a pathetic lie and a living hell.

 


 

Encounter —
 
and
 
Trauma

No matter how much effort a person puts into his or her image, it’s all a fraud, psychologically speaking, because so much of our lives is unconscious. 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 world—whether as an adolescent or as an adult—has 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 life.

In the story of the police officer above, 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 you’re 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? They’re just stones and pebbles. We can manufacture all of them we want aboard our starship.”

  

True encounter can’t 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 deepest—and often unconscious—value 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 obedience.[1] Although controversial by today’s 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 themselves—in obedience to authority and peer pressure—to inflict such torture.

  

This 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 trauma. Moreover, the fear of their own dark sides keeps many persons from developing an interest in psychology.

  

Quite often, this fear of the unconscious can manifest as a Specific Phobia, whereby the interior terror becomes projected onto external objects, situations, or even the environment itself—such as a fear of the dark.

Children often manifest environmental fears (fear of the dark, fear of storms, fear of water, etc.) because a child’s 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 illness.

  

This fear of their own dark sides also keeps many persons away from psychotherapy. But the point of psychotherapy 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 don’t grow back. Of course, baby teeth are lost and replaced with adult teeth, but once an adult tooth is lost, that’s it. Extracting a tooth is like the amputation of an arm or a leg—or a breast due to breast cancer—or the abortion of a fetal child.
 
Sigmund FreudTechnically, 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 it. 

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 personality.[2]

In the loss of a tooth, then, is a confrontation—an encounter—with the reality of bodily fragmentation and, ultimately, with death itself. In essence, the loss says, “You’re not as glamorous and powerful as you think. You’re 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, therefore—even a dream about such a loss, or even an abortion
 [3]—should never be minimized. For with the bodily loss comes the loss of smug confidence in bodily invulnerability. If you don’t understand what you’ve really lost, trauma will hit, and it will hit hard.

  

 


 

Pride
 
and
 
Love

Have you ever heard someone complain, “I don’t understand it. I give so much to others, and yet I get no recognition or respect. What’s wrong with this world?”

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 doesn’t even bother to say, “Thank you.” And it’s going to keep on doing it, no matter how much you protest. The problem, then, is with the person who confuses pride with love.

For example, many persons in the helping professions—nurses, physicians, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and so on—feel 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 you’re really treated. It’s probably not with love.

In other 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 return.

  

Maybe you will say, “Wait a minute. What can I give? I feel like mush inside. I’m 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 of feeling victimized, along with your secret hope to taste revenge for all the hurt and abuse you have ever suffered.

  

 
Victimization and Locus of Control

Rotter [4] 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 exert “control” 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 people—or luck.

So notice the encounter in the complaint described at the beginning of this section. “I don’t understand. These are the only words of “truth” in the entire complaint. Of course this person doesn’t understand. Understanding requires submission and true love, and that, sadly, is what he or she lacks. When you’re caught up in the unconscious desire to feel victimized, it feels as if your life is being stolen from you. You’re always clinging to what you’re 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 love—and function from an internal locus of control—you lay down your life for others. When you love, you have nothing to lose, because you have already given up your pride—willingly.

 
Identification with the Aggressor

In 1973, 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 person’s life, one form of psychological—and physical—defense 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 Women’s 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.

 


 

Identity
 
and
 
Sexuality

Halloween. Mardi Gras. Masquerades. Our cultures are full of ways we pretend that we can change our identities by changing our outward appearances.

In times past, a person’s 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 won’t be able to perform that job.

Nevertheless, 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.

Reproductive sexuality is really quite simple, being a function of biology. The problems with sexual identity begin in the unconscious. 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. There’s even a clinical term for this: Gender Identity Disorder.

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 act—no matter, even, how you might change your body surgically—you can never change your genetic reproductive reality.

  

Carl JungCarl 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 didn’t take his ideas so far as to speak of ego 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 don’t fit into society’s 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 behavior.

  

So why, then, would anyone develop a desire to change reproductive reality? Well, even if you understand the reality of the soul, the basic facts of life—reproduction and death—are still painful realities. But as plain realities, they don’t mean anything; they just are. A fantasy of changing one’s personal meaning by changing one’s gender (Gender Identity Disorder) or one’s clothes (Transvestic 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 death.

  

All fantasies, sexual 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 political process to normalize fantasies—and even encourage you to act them out in reality—then the whole point of true healing is sadly missed.

  

Therefore, if you fail to recognize the inherent fraud 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 loneliness.

 


 

Loneliness

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.” That’s what loneliness is. It’s 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 addict’s 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.

  

Real life—not the glossy advertising-agency image of “life”—on 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.

“Whoever knows how to die in all things will have life in all things.”

—St. John of the Cross
The Sayings of Light and Love, no. 160.

Take it from St. John of the Cross. He understood.

 


 

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Notes:

1. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378.
 
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, Abortion and 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, 1–28.

 
Additional Resources
 
Lacan:
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 Cross:
JUAN DE LA CRUZ
The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross
 
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Anger: Insult, Revenge, and Forgiveness
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Depression and Suicide
Fear
Personality
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Sexuality and Love
Spirituality and Psychology
Spiritual Healing
Terrorism and Psychology
Trauma and PTSD
The Unconscious
Treatment Philosophy
  
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