Trading Images of The Self
In our obsession with self-image and the problems it has created, are we destined to destroy ourselves?
When I begin a new issue of Sunday Letters, I’m usually leaning into a subject that has been on my mind over the past week or longer. Something might capture my attention, say from a youtube video, a tweet I read, or an article I came across in my research or just through curiosity. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a lot on authentic leadership, which is really an examination of human behaviour through a particular lens. It is an analysis of inauthentic and authentic forms of the self. It’s a deeper look into an aspect of our humanity at play.
The Centrality of Images
We are obsessed with our self-image. Even for most of us who play a very minor role in the grand stage show we call life, there is a desire to be seen in a particular light. Depending on the situation, we may be a leader or follower, the boss or the employee, the parent or the child, the inflictor or the afflicted, the sadist or the masochist. My go-to humanist socialist, Erich Fromm, wrote on this phenomenon extensively. So too did his predecessor, Sigmund Freud. Both acknowledge the thinness and destructiveness of the surface-level self formed through a relationship with its environment.
When we stare into the mirror, we see a reflection. It is a representation of us that reinforces the ideas and concepts we hold of ourselves. We dress up to fulfil that image, and when what we see staring back meets the ideal, we are ready to go out into the world. But weaknesses exist–largely unacknowledged–and are concealed by make-up, a nice haircut, skinny jeans, and new shoes. The image we have borrowed from the world of other people holds a central role in all our affairs and exchanges and protects us from those weaknesses.
Who are we really? We don’t know, but the image will do just fine for now. Kicking the true self further into the background, if indeed a “true self” exists, we delay self-realisation and the opportunity to connect with a genuine and authentic version of ourselves. In this sense, the world in all its wonder and depravity is a reflection of all that we perceive ourselves to be. We are a microcosm of the macrocosm.
Consider our western industrialised consumer culture, for example. In almost every walk of life and in every exchange, someone is trying to sell us something. Bright, shiny, sexy advertisements depict the centrality of the ideal self-image vying for our attention and getting it. In doing so, corporations successfully identify and commoditise our deepest fears and desires to detrimental effects. They offer us short-term gratification reinforcing the concept that life will be happier once we get that thing, the wife, the husband, the body, hairstyle, new car or whatever.
Our concept of work and who we should be in the workplace is also heavily influenced by the images they portray. They say if we are to succeed in the dog-eat-dog world where survival is bent on meeting the ideal, then we must be productive contributors to the system. In this, there is no allowance or time to perceive oneself in any other way. Never waste an opportunity to put yourself out there, they say, because the competition will get ahead. Someone else will take your job, your slice of the pie. Therefore, you must be bright, shiny, loud, and above all, noticed. If you want something, you better get out there and get it. So we fill every moment of our day in actively pursuing the ideal self-image with internal conflict never too far away. We self-medicate for that.
The truth of the matter is that these ideals, these images, are liabilities sold as assets. And we spend lifetimes in the mode of accumulation of these fake plastic representations of life and the self. We not only wear a mask, so to speak, but we wear many. We step out into the world and say, “hey, look at me, I exist, I am real, I am valuable, tell me you see me!” We need to be validated, and this need can drive us towards behaviour that doesn’t serve us, the planet, or, indeed, other people. And so, everything the ego-based self does in the world is an effort to reinforce its vitality and value further. But what it really reflects is a fundamental weakness in the self.
Research by William Gardnerand Jim Collins points to a solution. Both researchers suggest that to connect with a deeper authentic sense of self, one that acknowledges the world does not exist for our personal gratification, there must be certain antecedents. That is to say, we must live a certain kind of life that holds to a particular philosophy and even life experience. Both Gardner and Collins point towards the impact of dramatic life events in facilitating personal growth and development. These experiences then serve as catalysts for heightened self-awareness and the ability to self-reflect and question the integrity of the schemes of the world we hold.
But we can’t force this. It seems to me that it must come about on its own. Despite the efforts of the do-gooder neoliberal narrative, the authentic self cannot be packaged and sold from a supermarket shelf. It’s not available in a book, a psychological theory, a prescriptive set of instructions, or a seminar on finding oneself. In that, there is merely the exchange of one image for another.
The pursuit of a better self appears to serve as further masking of something which cannot be defined. So I wonder if there is any point in talking about these things. If we cannot solve the problems we have created by the force of effort, if these attempts to fix things only further exacerbate the problems, we may need to let the fire burn itself out. Whatever the answer, there is little doubt that the adherence to ideals and the centrality of the ideal image hasn’t really solved anything.
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Fromm, E. (2001). Beyond the chains of illusion: My encounter with Marx and Freud (Vol. 780). A&C Black.
Freud, S. (2015). Civilization and its discontents. Broadview Press.
Gardner, W. L., Avolio, B. J., Luthans, F., May, D. R., & Walumbwa, F. (2005). “Can you see the real me?” A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The leadership quarterly, 16(3), 343-372
Collins, J. (2009). Good to Great-(Why some companies make the leap and others don't).