In Western culture, ego is often thought of as 'healthy', or at worst a necessary evil. But constructing an artificial sense of self based on the lie of separateness, can have catastrophic consequences not only for the person but for entire societies. Dorothy Rowe writes:
-New Scientist, 21 June 2010Can you bear to remember that time in your life when you were going along feeling secure and thinking, "This is me, this is my world, that was my past, this will be my future," when suddenly you found that you had made a major error of judgement? When you realised that many of the ideas underpinning your whole sense of being a person - that sense of "I", "me", "myself" - had been invalidated by events?Have you ever had the sensation of falling through infinite space, shattering, crumbling, of being about to disappear like a raindrop into the ocean? Perhaps you knew that what was falling apart was not your sense of self but some of your ideas. You knew that you now had to go through a period of uncertainty until new ideas emerged. But if you did not know this, you would have been utterly terrified, so terrified that you would do anything never to go through such an experience again.Psychiatrists and psychologists have either ignored this experience, maximised its significance as a full-scale "breakdown", or minimised it as a "panic disorder". Yet this feeling of falling apart is an essential part of our lives and of most of our narratives. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy and her companions emerge wiser and strong from the invalidation of their idea that the wizard could solve their problems, while paradoxically Othello is destroyed by the invalidation of his belief that his wife Desdemona had been unfaithful.We first experience the terror of being invalidated when we are small children, but by the time we are 3 or 4 we have learned a way of avoiding it: we have learned how to lie. From then on, whenever we glimpse the faintest possibility that our "selves" might be threatened with annihilation, we lie.First of all, we lie to ourselves. Why? Because we fear that we do not have the strength and courage to face the truth of our situation. We even lie about lying, preferring to call our lies anything but a lie. We say: "He's in denial" or "She's being economical with the truth".All lies have networks of consequences we did not expect or intend. The lies we tell may well protect us and our personal - or collective - sense of self in the short term, but in the long term and in a linked-up, complex world, the consequences can be truly disastrous. After all, when we lie to ourselves and to others, we multiply a thousandfold the inherent difficulties we have trying to determine what is actually going on inside us and around us.
Dorothy Rowe is an Australian psychologist and emeritus associate of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
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