Friday, January 13, 2012

Theodor Reik Part 5: Ashamed of Ourselves

In Chapter VII of Listening With The Third Ear, Theodor Reik's self-analysis, three sensitive and significant thoughts are sketched out: The significance of embarrassment, the necessity of looking inward, and the privileged position of emotion over intellect.

It is common, in everyday experience, to look outward for the cause of our emotional state. What in our circumstances is it that is making us unhappy, content, sad, jealous, or insecure? Oftentimes searching the external (a particular obsession of American culture) is a defense against the threat of seeing ourselves in a way that does not sit-well with a coveted view of ourselves. The effort of human social life, at least since civil-ization, is to shore up what we want (and what we want others) to believe about ourselves, with what we really know about ourselves. Psychoanalysis has shown us, and there is little room for debate in this, that the desired ideal self is so important that it becomes the distraction or preoccupation that diverts us from and veils the aspects of ourself that are not consistent with it. In other words, we work very hard at keeping ourselves and others under the opinion that our ideal self is true. One of the ways of dealing with the inconsistencies that constantly arise is to point the finger towards externally changing environment, rather than the real self being exposed by the fiction itself.

Reik discusses what he calls "the Jewish problem," although we will see that there is nothing uniquely "Jewish" about this problem. The problem that Reik describes is the stunting effect that the embarrassment of one's biological and cultural father has on the self. Reik claims that there is an inhibition common to all Jewish people that is expressed in an embarrassment, specifically, towards the father. Reik reveals that this embarrassment becomes an ego sensitivity that colors all interactions and interpretations with the world.

I leave the "Jewish problem" for Reik to work out. I do not feel that this is a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. Instead, I say that this is a tendency that has been described, by Alfred Adler, as a human universal -namely the fundamental experience of inferiority.

Inferiority is the phenomenon that occurs when our adopted, cultural, beliefs shape the idea of what we should be (described by Freud as the ego ideal) comes into conflict with reality. For Adler all emotion, thinking, and action is, fundamentally, a result of this feeling of inferiority. Our personality, largely a conglomeration of defenses against coming into contact with the discrepancy between what we want to believe about ourselves and what we are. In Reik's "Jewish problem" the issue is the culturally contextualized position of the Jewish people. But this can be said to be true of any contextualized physical, psychological, or cultural quality. A sense of inferiority (embarrassment) is an essential part of all human experience, whether that be a sense of physical inferiority (consider body image or physical features today) or nonphysical inferiority such as national, religious, or ethnic group. Oftentimes the physical and nonphysical grouping correlates. Either way, the sense of inferiority, that is to say the embarrassment that one experiences, will be directed towards their own self-belief as they directly experience it. For the individual who is not thoroughly convinced that his height is ideal, any ambiguous glance from another will be interpreted as a prejudicial act. The source of the inferiority, be it intelligence, education, wealth, power, social status, sex appeal, attractiveness, body image, sexuality, religious belief, philosophy, or politics -shapes entirely the experience we have with the world.

Reik challenges us to pause and consider how our sense of inferiority, the conflict between the ideal and real self, shapes our experiences, and how interpretations of the actions of others are at the least shaded, and at the most formed, by our feelings (appraisals) of ourselves. In this way, via Alder, we can refer to the human problem. The question we must first come to terms with, and always consult when interpreting our experience in the world is: how does my reaction defend me against my feelings of inferiority and shame for being ________.