The Displaced Insecurity of the Self-Concept

Anxiety is of course nothing more than the insecurity of the self-concept projected outwards onto the world at large. It is ‘displaced insecurity’, in other words; if it wasn’t displaced then it wouldn’t be anxiety – it would on the contrary be an accurate (and thus valuable) perception of reality. Until we can see the insecurity where it belongs therefore we cannot avail of this valuable perception – we’re left chasing red herrings instead and even if we do catch them (which we won’t!) that isn’t going to do us any good…

 

Just as long as we can see that there is such a thing as the ‘self-concept’ then it is very straightforward to also see that anxiety is the displaced insecurity of this self-concept, and that we don’t on this account have to go looking for any other explanation for it (or indeed go looking for any fancy ‘cures’ or ‘solutions’ for it). Everything then falls into place and we realize that any effort we put into fixing the situation is actually feeding into the cause of the anxiety in the first place (as is always the way when we try to ‘fix insecurity’). But the difficulty is that we are fundamentally resistant to looking at our everyday ‘sense of self’ in this way – we are both culturally and personally fundamentally averse to questioning or examining this taken-for-granted sense of self.

 

In the Wikipedia entry on the Apollonian dictum ‘Know Thyself’ we read: “Socrates says, as he did in Phaedrus, that people make themselves appear ridiculous when they are trying to know obscure things before they know themselves.” The actual quote from Phaedrus reads:

But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things.

When we try to know anything when we neither know ourselves nor have the slightest interest in knowing ourselves is necessarily to make ourselves ridiculous. When we try to understand anxiety without first seeing the nature of the self-concept this is to make ourselves doubly ridiculous since anxiety is – as we have said – the result of our lack of insight into ourselves in the first place. If we try to understand the anxiety that comes about because of our lack of insight into what is really going on with ourselves whilst maintaining this wilful ignorance of ourselves then matters can only get worse! All of our purposeful activity (including our misguided attempts to do something about our anxiety) stems from our ‘lack of awareness of the true nature of the self-concept’ and this is not an easy thing to do anything about since we don’t actually want to have this awareness! We’re always heading in completely the opposite direction to that of  ‘increased awareness of the insecurity of the self-concept’…

 

If we allow just for the sake of the argument there is such a thing as the ‘self-concept’ then it stands to reason that it would be insecure! Being a self-concept is a very precarious business – I am whatever I think I am (or whatever you think I am) and so how precarious, how insecure is this? When we look at life from the POV of the self-concept then all we see is a long list of things that could go wrong. It is of course equally true to say that when we look at life from the POV of the SC then all we see is a long list of things that could go right. That is equally true thing to say and it is also – when we look further into it – equally deluded. It is ‘deluded’ because what goes wrong for the SC (or right for it) doesn’t really have anything to do with us. It’s all hypothetical – we will feel good if the SC incurs an advantage in life but this good feeling relies totally upon the proposition that who we genuinely are is this SC, and that just isn’t true! Both good luck and bad luck (or ‘things going well’ and ‘things going badly’) are nothing more than spin.

 

The SC can put one of two different types of spin on the world – it can put the ‘optimistic’ sort of spin on things or it can apply the ‘pessimistic’ sort. It can be hopeful of the positive outcome, or fearful of the negative, both of which represent perfectly legitimate motivations. The SC can just as easily go one way or the other – it is equally ‘at home’ in going both ways, so to speak. We of course think that the answer to anxiety (or ‘preoccupation with the negative outcome’) is to find a way to switch the spin back around to the optimistic or hopeful sort; then – we naively imagine – everything will be OK again and we can carry on with our lives in a happier and healthier way.

 

This isn’t the case, however. It is very far from being the case! The optimistic (or positive) spin and the pessimistic (or negative) one are both equally unrealistic, and for this reason neither can lead to happiness. An unrealistic attitude to life can hardly be expected to lead to anything wholesome, after all! Unrealistic thinking is never a recipe for happiness, even if it is unrealistic thinking of the optimistic kind. The point that we are making here is that all spins are unrealistic – they wouldn’t be spins otherwise! The only view of things that isn’t unrealistic is the view that is not based on any type of spin, either negative or positive. The question is therefore – how do we see the world then? What does ‘no spin’ look like?

 

Well, if the optimistic view equals what we might call ‘positive certainty’ and the pessimistic view equals ‘negative certainty’ then having no spin (or no bias) equals uncertainty (or openness). ‘Positive certainty’ is when we strongly feel that we are going to obtain an outcome that is favourable to us and ‘negative certainty’ is when we equally strongly feel that we are going to incur an outcome that is unfavourable, and so zero certainty (or zero bias) must mean that we have no conception of any sort of outcome either advantageous or disadvantageous. Outcomes – of any kind – just don’t exist for us. They don’t come into the picture…

 

It goes further than this though. Not only is it the case that outcomes don’t come into the picture, it is also very much the case that the one for whom the outcome exists (the outcome which can either be advantageous or disadvantageous) doesn’t come into the picture either. Not only is it the case that there are no ‘goals’ (or no ‘feared outcomes’), it is also the case that there one to either ‘hope for the desired outcome’ nor ‘dread the feared one’. This is what radical uncertainty means – it means that there is no controller and nothing to control, no goal and no ‘seeker after the goal’. This is where we really come to the crunch, therefore – uncertainty is more disagreeable to us than negative certainty. Or as we could also say, ‘radical not-knowing’ is worse than ‘’knowing the worse’ (or ‘failure’).

 

If we can see this (our undisclosed preference a situation that is judged as ‘bad’ rather than a situation that is radically unknown) then we can see right into the very heart of anxiety. What is going on in anxiety is that there is a basic confusion occurring between two very different types of uncertainty, and the two types of ‘insecurity’ that are associated with these two types of uncertainty. The reason that this confusion exists is because we are strategically displacing our fear about the radical uncertainty regarding ‘how things are when we don’t put any spin on them’ onto the level of trivial uncertainty with regard to the question of whether the goal is attained or not – which is clearly not the same thing at all! Trivial uncertainty isn’t the same thing at all because it doesn’t really matter one way or the other; it doesn’t really matter one way or the other but we can’t help reacting as if it does!

 

So rather than feeling the insecurity where it is, we’re feeling it where it isn’t. We’re feeling it where it’s safe to feel it! In one way it could be said that nothing very much has been achieved by this displacement manoeuvre – we were insecure before and we’re still insecure now – the only thing that has changed is the arena. Being pointlessly worried about outcomes that don’t really matter very much is after all a distinctly unpleasant form of suffering in its own right! Who likes worrying? Who likes being in the throes of anxiety the whole time? In order to see the ‘gain’ that is being made here we have to understand why trivial uncertainty (or trivial risk) is so vastly more preferable to radical uncertainty (or radical risk). What is the difference between ‘uncertainty with regard to specific outcomes’ and ‘uncertainty in relation to the validity of the self-concept itself’?

 

Very clearly, the advantage in trivial uncertainty is that at no point in the proceedings are we risking the SC itself. Even if the outcome is a total and failure that doesn’t actually jeopardize the SC – we just become a ‘loser-self’ rather than a ‘winner-self’, in this case! The spin is switched over one way to the other. We may feel pretty bad about ourselves, but we still don’t doubt our existence as this ‘idea’ that we have about ourselves; a loser is after all just as much a real thing as a winner and what we’re playing for (even though the rules of the game mean that we can’t ever admit this to ourselves) is not ‘success with regard to designated outcomes’ but ‘success with regard to proving that the SC is an actual real entity in the first place’. That’s the type of ‘success’ that we’re really interested in…

 

The SC is however not a real thing and this is where its vulnerability lies – the vulnerability that gives rise to its chronic ontological insecurity. It’s easy to see that the SC is not actually real, if only we were prepared to look into it. No one who has ever gone to the trouble of paying attention to the self-concept and its antics (no one who has taken the trouble to observe the Apollonian Edit of ‘Know Thyself’) will ever try to say that the SC has any stability (or ‘substance’) of its own. One might as well try to claim that a shadow has stability or substance! The only existence it has is the existence we give it and this is itself a highly unstable situation! What could be more unstable than something which relies on our ongoing efforts in maintaining it if it is not immediately to vanish into thin air?

 

And it is not – as we have implied – just that we are committed, on a full-time basis, to maintaining the SC; we are committed, on a full-time basis, to maintaining it whilst not letting on to ourselves that we are doing so (which is another kettle of fish entirely). Maintaining the SC whilst at the same time not disclosing to ourselves that we are maintaining the SC is the only way that we can believe that the SC is who we genuinely are, after all. This is the only way that it going to work, when we don’t see our own hand, when we don’t see our own involvement. The same is true for all belief-structures of course – as James Carse says, to see that we have chosen to believe in a particular thing (a particular structure or statement about reality) is not to believe in it…

 

This whole business of creating our own basis for understanding and perceiving the world and then not disclosing to ourselves that we are responsible for this basis, and that it wouldn’t be there if we didn’t continue with our efforts to make it be there, is of course the most insecure situation that there ever could be. What could possibly be more insecure than this? Insecurity like this cannot be contained and so it spills out into our everyday life and when it does so we will talk in terms of anxiety. Anxiety is seen as a kind of pathology in its own right – we look at in exclusion of all other factors, trying to locate some discrete cause so that we can cure it with drugs or with rational therapy of some sort. We come out with all sorts of convoluted theories, and all sorts of elaborate methods based on these theories. But how does any of this help us with the real issue – which is our unacknowledged ontological insecurity?

 

Being identified with the self-concept places us, as we have just said, in the most insecure situation there ever could be. It is extra-insecure because we have illegitimately removed ourselves from the genuine insecurity, so as to obtain for ourselves a ‘false or phoney type of security’. This ‘false or phoney type of security’ is however a form of super-insecurity – it’s insecurity that we can’t see as such, and all this does is to give the fear that we’re hiding from extra power over us. All we’ve achieved with our cleverness is extra suffering. Being identified as we are to the SC is nothing more than a refined and extra-tortuous form of suffering. We’re all wedded to the self-concept – that is the ‘default situation’, so to speak. We’re all ‘wedded to the SC’ and no matter what efforts we may in morality or self-development there’s nothing we can do about that; we can’t will ourselves to ‘change our spots’ in some way so that we’re not so abysmally self-orientated. If we do make an effort in morality (so as to ‘improve’ ourselves) then this effort of will is only for the sake of the self that we’re trying to change. As Alan Watts says, the one who has been tasked with carrying out the change is the very one who needs changing.

 

Nothing ever happens when we try to change ourselves because whenever we try to change ourselves it is always in accordance with some idea that we have and we can never go beyond the self-concept by thinking! The suggestion that who we are in our essence has nothing to do with any idea or thought that we might have (or with any structure of any kind) is not one that we are in any hurry to take seriously. The thinking mind is running the show, after all, and the thinking mind is hardly going to acknowledge that there might be something out there that it can never know about, and which is infinitely more significant that all the things that it can know about. The thinking mind isn’t about to put itself into second place like this – even if we waited a billion years it would never do this. Thought is ‘top dog’ and if it has anything to do with it it’s going to stay that way! Just as long as thought (or the ‘rational mind’) is top dog there is going to be no questioning of the self-concept…

 

Because the rational mind is running the show we aren’t about to look at anxiety in a helpful way anytime soon. As far as mental health is concerned everything we do and say is purely for show – it’s purely theatrical, it’s not really intended to get to the heart of matters, it’s not really intended to free us from our neurosis. We will of course insist that it is – we will insist until we’re blue in the face that we’re sincere in our efforts to free ourselves from the suffering of neurosis. This is all mere bluster however – what else is the self-concept capable of other than bluster (or bluff) after all?

 

The thing about all of this – as we have been saying – is that the one thing we are most definitely NOT prepared to do is to investigate the self-concept. We will investigate (and form elaborate theories about) all sorts of things – you name it, we will investigate it, and produce super-dense bodies of opaque theory in relation to it – but we won’t look at ourselves (not in any non-rational way, that is). This brings us back to what Socrates said two thousand four hundred years ago about forming theories of the world without first investigating the assumptions – our only achievement when we do this is to make ourselves appear quite ridiculous. Just as long as we are identified with the self-concept (which is a state of ‘pseudo-being’ that relies upon our continued psychological unconsciousness) all our pretensions at wisdom are going to be ridiculous…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One comment

  1. Julie · March 2

    The anxiety arises as a temptation. I could look to it for answers. I could believe what it says, and I do to one extent or another every day. I could…I’m so used to it. But if I step slowly and carefully, if I watch the conditioned responses…there’s something stronger underneath, and it’s always just there.

    Liked by 1 person

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