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Differences Divide: The Problem of Being The Authentic Self

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The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no universal recipe for living. Each of us carries his own life-form within him – an irrational form which no other can outbid.” [Carl Gustav Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy, in Collected Works, Volume 16, paragraph 81.]

This seems like common enough sense, but in spite of that, it is unlikely that any of us really accept the absolute truth of this quotation. As individuals we struggle with the reality of being individuals. We want to be like others, have others be like us. We are, after all, social beings. Differences divide. Commonalities bring us together. I learned this lesson long before I got serious about studying the human psyche and Jungian psychology. I was a parent in a community. I watched my three children emerge into the world and as each carved unique and individual lives. I saw them alternately struggle with their uniqueness and then struggle with groups. They were drawn to be in groups whether it was one daughter being on the soccer team, another daughter in a youth group, and a son on the hockey team.

But at the same time as they were being pulled to relation with others, taking on a collective identity, the groups never felt as though they fully fit their sense of self. They had to keep part of who they were at the edges, hidden at times, from the group. No one had to teach them how to disguise and set aside the unique parts of who they were in order to fit in at least enough. It is an unconscious response built in to each of us. The problems come when we have all disguised too much and too often leading us to lose sight of that unique individual. All those hidden, even denied aspects of our unique identity drift into our unconsciousness.

Whatever is within that unconscious part of self, we are unaware of. If anyone was to ask us if we saw ourselves, knew ourselves as holding certain resistances or certain passions which we have unconsciously buried, we would answer with relative assurance and belief that we didn’t have those resistances and passions. Why? We have come to believe that we are only what we have consciously held onto over the years we have grown and matured. Those things are predominantly the aspects of self that allow us to be more comfortable in our home society, in our relationships – those aspects that say we are similar, not different. However, for some, at a certain point in their lives, usually with the approach of midlife, a crisis of identity surfaces. Perhaps this occurs to those who have most had to reshape their identity.

It is my belief that early childhood trauma, especially on-going trauma that would otherwise so overwhelm the ego as to dissolve the ego (go insane or commit suicide), has caused so much to be denied – good stuff along with the bad stuff. When the trauma resurfaces by triggered memories, what emerges are the images, the sounds, the feel, that smell and the taste of the trauma. What emerges is raw and visceral – one is back in the grips of the trauma. What doesn’t emerge, but exists non-the-less, are the parts lost to unconscious that inspired survival, those positive aspects of individual uniqueness. They exist somewhere in the as yet untapped shadow stuff below our awareness.

Doing the work of uncovering and moving toward a larger understanding of ourselves, hints of these other aspects begin to emerge. When what emerges that is inherently physically and psychologically healthy is not viewed as acceptable by the community, we find ourselves living through more stress. We want to deny what we discover. We don’t want to set ourselves so far apart from our communities that we end up alone. We need relationship, we need to be with others as one only truly knows one’s self as a separate being because one is in relation to another person, in relation to others. But even more at issue is the relationship with one’s significant other. Just how different can one be before it becomes too different, before the differences threaten the survival of relationship?

In the modern world we see perhaps too much of how even small differences quickly has a couple separate. The tolerance for difference is weak. The differences don’t have to be much, just enough to have one within the pair feel that the difference is an insult, a statement that the other doesn’t value the beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, or whatever is perceived as being in conflict through opposition. Sad stories such as squeezing toothpaste from the middle of the tube instead of carefully from the bottom of the tube (or vice-versa), TV viewing habits (he doesn’t show interest in the programs I like, he sits through them as if bored – he makes me feel belittled as if I am a simpleton for liking my favourite programs), or other inane, non-fundamental issue. Narcissism is at work, an inability to tolerate differences in others which are then taken as negative and critical statements.

Communities are just as narcissistic as individuals, ready to divorce/shun/banish the offending individuals from the community who don’t mirror the collective. The individual psyche can read the community at an unconscious level and do the work of unconsciously burying those individual characteristics that would create more distance from the community.

The impulse for self-understanding that assaults some individuals at midlife (typical but not limited to that period or life-stage) opens up a longing and a need to follow a journey of discovery, self-discovery that is not narcissistic. Rather, the journey is one that doesn’t coddle the individual as it shows him or her at their worst as well as their best. Nothing remains hidden. For most, glimpses at what has been hidden within the psyche is enough to have the doors slammed shut and the journey brought to an abrupt end. To allow the journey to continue is to find oneself journeying further and further from the collective into a state of aloneness, oneness, individualness that the self perceives as a relationship death sentence.

Damned if one continues on with the journey, and damned if one doesn’t – then the questions become: “Do I dare be alone with myself? Can I respect myself if my decision means an end to relationship that has endured, a relationship that promised “to death do us part”? Will I respect myself if abandon the journey because of duty to family and community?”

Buddhism seems to slip past this whole drama of self-identity and individuation by having “ego” vanish leaving one at one with the all. Somehow, personally, I rebel against the dissolution of ego. I would rather suffer the conflicts of the eternal dance between self and other, between consciousness and the unconscious that is embodied in the yin-yang symbol of black and white forever circling, trying to both engulf and be consumed.


Written by Robert G. Longpré

January 18, 2014 at 9:33 am

5 Responses

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  1. As usual you produce a good read. This a good one, too. Thank you. I like your reference to the journey, as to “find oneself journeying further and further from the collective…the state of aloneness, or oneness, and of seeing it more and more as sort of a self imposed death sentence. In this context, in my personal life, I note the process as one of ‘distancing. What I mean is; a conscious deliberation in two directions. One, a darker direction, downwards, a withdrawal from detail, sort of a hibernation factor, at its worst, depressive even suicidal. Then, the other, by choice, ‘distancing’ if you will, towards what some call enlightenment, but more inclusive of detail, illumination as in a learning process. It takes more time this sort of a self integration into the self, but includes an integration into the collective. I was wondering if this ‘distancing’ theory makes some sense to you within the context of your material.

    Russo Lewis

    January 18, 2014 at 11:17 am

    • Think in terms of more and more a life sentence rather than a death sentence. The journey awakens the soul. Thanks, Russo.


      January 23, 2014 at 6:36 pm

  2. “The shoe that fits one person pinches another”.

    “I would rather suffer the conflicts of the eternal dance between self and other, between consciousness and the unconscious that is embodied in the yin-yang symbol of black and white forever circling, trying to both engulf and be consumed.”

    A very thoughtful and thought provoking post. Even without the powerful influences of past trauma and their resurfacing we intensely social animals do like to make one another uncomfortable or at least always be on our toes watching each other’s business to ensure conformity or at least a minimum “acceptable” level of deviance. Colouring inside the lines is the default requirement!

    The yin-yang image is perfect. The “forever” part would also be true and at times a difficult thing to accept because we always seem to be striving to “settle once and for all” that which will never, ever, be “settled”. In very tight, closed, relatively small cultures/communities many cultural norms appear to be “settled” and unchanging. However, as communities expand and cultures intermix things become increasingly messy. I am always fascinated when I hear that a many schools in Toronto have 50+ different immigrant languages spoken by students. For some this is an amazing exciting mix of colours and flavours to enjoy and explore. For others, of course, this is dilution, corruption, and the source of fear and loss. The shoe that fits …. Indeed!

    However, large, diverse, cosmopolitan cities allow for more space for micro-cultures to thrive so inter-cultural differences are somewhat avoided, but within the micro-cultural communities the demands for conformity can be suffocating for many, particularly young people exposed to the rainbow of possibilities right outside their neighbourhood.

    At the personal and intimate level every individual changes, morphs, to different degrees throughout life. If the drift over time of a couple is somewhat in the same direction the stress of difference is minimal. Of course, where the drift is dramatically different then often there is a point beyond recovery. Hopefully it is not frequently an issue over toothpaste tubes! 🙂 Your point about the struggle between being true to oneself and/or capitulating and toeing the party line is perfectly valid. In essence it would seem that it is, and always will be, a bit of both. Whether Jung acknowledges that one can ultimately determine who the “authentic self” is, but must accept that living completely as that authentic self is nearly impossible is unclear to me.

    One thing that fascinates is the default assumptions we make about the lives of other individuals within the privacy of their homes. We generally assume that “they” live as we do. Even when there is little evidence to confirm that, we are comfortable that “they” are like us. When a new fact comes to our attention, oh say, a “default” dress code of NADA! Then deep offence is often taken despite the fact that it will never be directly witnessed and despite the fact that we accept that there are many “normal” times when being naked is legitimately expected in one’s private residence. Even the idea of “more” than expected private nudity is grounds for much objection and even anger. To the deeply offended person the seeming oddness of their irrational reaction is utterly incomprehensible. There is, and always will be, a collective standard that one is expected to adhere to whether in a cave or the privacy of one’s home. It is areas like these where “civilization” becomes irrational and even dangerous. Fortunately the law requires witnessing the horrible “event” before action can be taken, awareness and outrage aren’t – yet – a part of the law.

    Bill Rathborne

    January 18, 2014 at 3:17 pm

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