Your Plan for a Person

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.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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10 comments

    I enjoyed this post very much. For years I struggled with what I used to call the “like Me” syndrome. I guess some would call that being a people pleaser? All that changed when I actually begin to understand the importance of self love. I know there are people that will never like me, love me or agree with me or what I say or do. And I still sleep great at night, and live my life and I am truely content. I welcome change, and enjoy( but still procrastinate at times) what I can do to improve my quality of life as well as the lives of those I come in contact with daily. . I guess it makes me comfortable to be HUMAN..lol.
    Again thank you for this post, and the others they are very insightful and offer options for those who are coping with issues in their lives, and not sure what direction to take.

    You’re welcome, Janice. This post seemed to have struck a chord with a lot of people. I’ve really enjoyed hearing from everyone.

    I agree with Susana; great writing, thanks. There is a book about this topic written for gay men called “The Velvet Rage” which I highly recommend, but the phenomenon described is universal, so the book is useful not just for gay men, but for anyone with an overly idealized “plan for a person”.

    Having grown up with a mother who took care of all the idealization for me, claiming I would surely be the highly unrealistic “best of best” in all fields, I concentrated on counting the ways I could never achieve any of it. For her is was a vicarious “plan for a person”. I didn’t see myself as the polar opposite of her visions, but rather very ordinary instead. Sadly, I grew to shy away from the possibilties to stand out and shine, even when the opportunity presented itself. Self sabotoge is still my demon, as I procrastinate and don’t see things through to completion all too often. It’s comforting in a way, not having to realize where I might actually land.

    Suzanne – a song popped into my mind when I read your post. It’s called “Best Drunk in Town” by a folk singer named Mike Cross. It starts out “When Billy was a boy his mom and daddy told him, ‘Son don’t be content with 2nd place. You be number one…'” As you could guess from the song title, that life plan didn’t pan out and the chorus is “…where ever there was whiskey that’s where Billy could be found. He could drink more, faster, longer than anyone else around. Billy Crump became the best drunk in the town…”

    I hadn’t thought about that song in a while. It’s one that made a subtle though important impact on me when I was a young adult since, like you, my mother expected everything I did to be exceptional.

    I’d like to understand better how this narcissistic ‘plan for a person’ differs from having dreams to follow?

    In my dreams, I always imagine myself in Canada (quite why Canada I am not sure, as a child I was fascinated with the country’s animals and natives, as an adult I tend to see Canadian women as confidently feminist and friendly), where I am a respected short-story writer and I have good, intelligent and liberal female friends whom I hang out with in a cafe culture. Yes, this is very far from the truth, though I do write alot and I have quite a few good, intelligent and liberal female friends.

    I certainly experienced early and ongoing emotional trauma and huge basic shame, and I do know that I have some narcisstic traits, the one that I am most familiar with is that I often want to email achievements at work around the whole organisation – I used to pretend this was to foster a sense of our work being worth something, because it’s often denigrated, but actually I think it stems from my desire for recognition that i am a good person.

    I’d love to hear your reply on how I tell apart following my dreams from plan-for-a-person, feel like I may be missing the point…d’oh!

    I think the difference has to do with an ideal self, one that is meant to deny shame. In my own experience, my plan for a person as a young man was to escape from profound shame, and while some of its features were expressions of my actual interests and goals, in many ways it was about being superior. Your plan sounds more like aspiring toward a sense of fulfillment as a writer and having close friends, rather than escaping from things about yourself you can’t bear.

    Thanks Joseph for replying. I reflected abit more on this, and I am also aware that because I have ‘dissociative identity disorder’, my alters have different ‘plans’. This affects me in the seemingly ridiculous choices of clothing I might make. Some of my work is to harmonize these and recognize common goals such as having friends, accepting we are in a woman’s body etc…I know this sounds highly odd (particularly if you never worked with someone with D.I.D. but this is true for me).

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