Most of us have goals and aspirations for the sort of person we’d like to become. Our ideal self-image is a reflection of the values we hold; it shows us the person we’d be if we were always able to live up to our own standards. When we succeed, it builds our self-esteem, but when we fail, it has just the opposite effect.
Some people, particularly those burdened with basic shame, often aspire to an ideal self intended to deny underlying damage; it’s a kind of lie about what is underneath rather than a fulfillment of internal values. From my earliest days in psychotherapy, my therapist would refer to it as my “plan for a person” — the well-educated, well-traveled, sophisticated, multi-lingual artsy-type guy I aspired to be, to disprove how badly I felt about myself, my damage and my depression. Ugly Joe, as I think of him. I’ve seen many similar patients during my years of practice; on an unconscious level, they all felt a kind of hopelessness about the extent of their damage and believed the only solution was to fabricate a “new and improved” self from the ground up. These people had all suffered early emotional trauma of an ongoing nature.
These people are usually trying very hard to look good in one way or another, to prove that they’ve got it all together, and narcissistic behavior is their hallmark. You know who I mean: the person who is always having one “fabulous” or “incredible” experience after another, who appears to be highly successful, and who somehow makes you feel shitty every time you converse. We’re talking about narcissism — not everyday narcissism and not at the level of Narcissistic Personality Disorder but something in between. These people want to be admired and envied. When they form a couple, they often display affection in ways that seem ostentatious; whether consciously or not, they try to make their relationship seem enviable and superior to what other people have. In all these instances, the shame and low self-esteem are projected into their audience, who must carry it for them.
Finding Your Own Way:
Don’t spend too much time thinking about the people you know who fit this description. Try to identify the ways in which you may do something similar, even if your plan-for-a-person isn’t so highly mapped out as mine was. Write out a description of yourself as you aspire to be. Let your imagination run free and don’t edit your fantasies to exclude what seems grandiose; don’t make it conform to social norms. Try to pay attention to which aspects of this idealized self resonate the most deeply.
Now take a look at the flip side of those qualities. Here are some possible pairings: beauty vs. ugliness. Skillful mastery vs. incompetence. Brilliance vs. stupidity. This exercise may put you in contact with the despised and rejected you, the person you never ever want to be. The truth of who you are lies somewhere in the realistic middle, in the realm of “ordinary”. Very very few of us are as remarkably superior as we might long to be, nor as inferior as we sometimes fear.