At the opening of the movie Avatar, Jake Sully has suffered a severe spinal chord injury that leaves him a paraplegic. No longer able to perform as a combat marine, and because the military won’t pay for an operation to restore the use of his legs — that is, to return him to his former self — Jake volunteers for a specialized military mission to the planet Pandora. Through the miracle of medical technology, he learns to psychically link with and inhabit an “avatar” or alternative physical self on that planet. In contrast to his paraplegic self, this avatar is healthy, fit and stands ten feet tall, with enormous physical prowess and sensory capabilities beyond those of humans. Embodying this avatar allows Jake not only to regain the functions he lost but also to surpass his human potential. His experience on Pandora ultimately proves to be more real, more meaningful to him than his actual life; at the movie’s end, he finds a way to transcend his human physical damage and move permanently to the realm of his superior Na’vi self.
This story perfectly embodies a dynamic I’ve seen with many clients, where they feel themselves to be so damaged, so filled with basic shame (or toxic shame) that they long to escape into the world of fantasy and become another person entirely.
It’s a particular instance of the dynamic I discussed in my post about hopeless problems, perfect answers. In these cases, avoidance of authentic, realistic relationships is strong; instead, they wish for a perfect relationship with an idealized partner. The Internet has enabled many people to pursue and act out this fantasy — in virtual form, of course, and for a limited time only.
A number of years ago, back when chat rooms and bulletin boards were first heating up, one of my clients became obsessed with the world of online “relationships”. A short, slightly overweight and physically unexceptionable gay man in his mid-30s, David suffered from extremely low self-esteem. His family background was deeply troubled; his sister had committed suicide in her late teens. Not long after her death, David dropped out of college, never managed to find and apply himself to any meaningful career and had spent most of his adult life either supported by his parents or working in low-level retail jobs. Despite a deep longing for one, he’d never had a relationship of any duration; instead, he tended to become fixated upon unattainable men, extremely attractive and successful members of the idealized ‘A’ Gay social world, as he called it. Often he developed subservient relationships with these people: he’d try to win their love and affection by “doing” for them. Invariably, they’d take advantage of him, giving rise to feelings of resentment on his part. Eventually there’d be an explosive confrontation that usually ended the friendship. David was a deeply unhappy and lonely man.
When he discovered Internet chat rooms, he found a way to become in fantasy the person he’d always longed to be. As I believe is often the case in anonymous online “relationships”, he completely misrepresented himself. The online David was younger, taller and thinner than the real one; he had a dynamic career and drove a different car, owned his own home … you get the picture. Often these relationships moved from the Internet to the telephone; he took great pleasure in “meeting” these strangers and getting to know them through hours-long conversations. They’d eventually make plans to get together; he’d re-schedule at the last moment and put off the meeting as long as possible. Eventually he’d either disappear without warning from the other man’s life, or make a shamed confession and beg off.
David was burdened with intolerable toxic shame. Because he couldn’t face that shame and how he felt about his own damage, avoidance of authentic relationships was inevitable. The internal damage felt so hopeless that he longed to escape himself entirely, morphing instead via the Internet into Ideal David searching for his ideal partner.
Finding Your Own Way:
Many video games involve selecting your own “avatar” as a prelude to entering the game world. Choice of that avatar and a “handle” are important for establishing a new virtual identity. Now that we have online gaming communities such as X Box live, where friends and strangers connect to play video games together in real time, it has become increasingly possible to occupy an online persona distinct from and superior to your ordinary self and to inhabit, at least for a time, another more interesting world. Is this something that appeals to you? Do you want to transcend your ordinary damaged self and become Intrepid Warrior or Mystic Eagle rather than everyday you?
In a less pronounced way, making new friends or beginning a new relationship offers the same possibility. For some of us, there’s the recurring hope that we can start over, be somebody new and improved in this new connection. It’s a kind of avoidance, really; until you’re ready to be the real you in a relationship, with all your quirks and difficulties, it won’t be authentic. Many people are forever hoping that they can attain their Na’Vi ideal self, if only the right relationship comes along.
For psychotherapists, if we’re not on guard, there’s a particular way in which the therapist-client relationship enables us to inhabit and even believe in a highly idealized self, thereby avoiding our own damage. Sometimes when my clients are going on about how wonderful I am and what a wonderful husband, father, etc. I must be, I’ll say: “It’s easy to be selfless, supportive and empathic when you have to do it for only fifty minutes at a time.” My clients usually get to see me at my very best because I’m doing my job and focused on their needs. For the most part, they don’t see grouchy Joe, or resentful Joe who feels like he’s working too hard, or angry Joe who isn’t getting his way at home. Although the client-therapist relationship is very real in its own way, on another level it’s totally artificial and offers us a tempting illusory escape from our imperfect selves.