The Strange World of Emotion

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Article 4

Aspects  of  Personal  Identity

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Absorption and Identification

In the early months of the infant’s life it has no ego and only experiences its subconscious mind reacting to sensations. As the mind becomes consciously tied to the physical body so the ego begins to form. The body puts a psychological boundary on the mind.

The emerging ego is simply the acceptance by consciousness of this boundary. The emerging ego is that aspect of consciousness that has a boundary. [¹]

Once the ego is in the process of creation then conscious life begins. [²]

Sub - Headings
Summary 1
Approval and Inferiority
Summary 2
Narcissism and Jealousy
Summary 3

Why are boundaries needed?
The problem that faces the infant is that life is just too complex in its totality ; therefore this complexity has to be restricted in some way in order to manage at least some part of it. The subconscious mind (along with the unconscious aspect of mind) has few boundaries, so the only way to make sense of the multitude of sensory impressions is to create boundaries. Such boundaries enable the mind of the infant to manage the sheer complexity of life that it is witness to.

The difficulty of trying to understand the multitude of sensations when boundaries are absent is illustrated very clearly by taking any powerful hallucinatory agent such as LSD. Without boundaries, it becomes difficult to establish what is real and what is imaginary, what is subjective and what is objective.

To help in the task of creating an ego the infant takes its mother as a role model. It identifies with the parental image. As the child grows up it changes its identification model several times, to father, to adolescent peers, to teachers. The resulting adult is a montage of different models, of different foci of identification. Identification can be viewed as a psychological union with an external source, with jealousy (mode of love) as the binding ingredient. [³]

A different drama is enacted by the narcissistic and introverted child. Identification with an external source ceases to have any intensity beyond the parental models. The narcissistic child begins to take itself as its own model : it begins to identify with itself. A better way of expressing this identification is to say that the child becomes self-absorbed.

I indicate my attitudes up to the end of my self-analysis. From an early age, probably from when I was around six years old, my own internal world of phantasy was more important to me than my friendships with other children. Usually when school ended for the day, my absorption into phantasy began. Even today, I still need to spend a lot of time on my own; when I was at work I had to find ways of creating a breathing space. I have had to create the greater part of my sense of identity from within myself alone. Self-absorption is a feature of narcissism in love mode and it easily becomes self-perpetuating. I rarely met anyone who shared either my views, or my existentialism, or my experience of life; hence I could do nothing other than take myself as my own reference point. The intense idealist leads a lonely life.

The intensity of my self-absorption was the reason why:

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A long psycho-analysis diminishes, even removes, confusion from the mind. This process is enhanced by the person’s ethical idealism. The three factors above lose their intensity as confusion is diminished. [4].  Therefore a long psycho-analysis reduces the importance of narcissism and so helps to balance the person. By my mid-50s I had exhausted the attraction and glamour of emotional intensity. This balancing brings out the differences between self-absorption and self-consciousness: the person’s ethical idealism (as a product of self-consciousness and not self-absorption) is the factor which pushes him or her towards being balanced.

All spiritual practices that aim to develop meditational or mystical ability also develop self-absorption and so have the effect of intensifying narcissism. Narcissism responds easily to emotional ecstasies. But meditation and mysticism have severe limitations. Self-absorption does not of its own accord produce self-consciousness – psychological understanding is not usually found amongst the talents of meditators and mystics. Yet in order to achieve the highest degrees of self-consciousness then self-absorption is a necessary way station or state of mind that has to be experienced sometime in one’s life.

However, there is a socially undesirable spin-off to habitual self-absorption : 
it may become impossible for the person to form social relationships of any depth.  The budding introvert or the budding mystic desires intensity of experience. For a man, when he desires deep absorption in his own reality he can control the process. However, to form a deep social relationship means to become identified in some ways with the other person. Now the introvert’s narcissistic love has changed to jealous love, and this kind of love he cannot control.  Jealous love confuses ego boundaries by removing the sense of separateness. The introvert can handle, in a fashion, his own intense emotions ; what he cannot handle is being subject to intense emotions, even affectionate ones, from someone else. The likelihood of being in a close social relationship engenders fear, the fear of the loss of his unique identity that is so precious to him. The only way to eliminate this fear is to base relationships on equality and trust.

The introvert or the budding mystic desires intensity of personal experience (but not social experience). In my 20s I tried to escape from my limitations within relationships by focusing on intensity of political experience. Intense experience is not deliberately sought or known by the majority of the members of society, except by the military and by youth. Soldiers know that the conditions of warfare produce an intensity of experience which is beyond the comprehension of the civilian.

The only route for such intensity in today’s youngsters is through drugs or dangerous sports, since much political and social activity has been criminalised in Britain by various governments from the 1990s onwards. The thirst for mind-changing drugs will never be eliminated within a nice, safe materialistic world which lacks political or spiritual idealism, which lacks adventure and challenge. Therefore it is more important to oversee the proper use of drugs and to give guidelines for interpreting their effects on the mind than in being punitive to users.

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How does absorption function ?
Consider meditation. Suppose that a meditator focuses his /her concentration on an object. For the practitioner of sufficient ability, the knower and the known become one. The perceiver and the object of perception become one. The meditator links his /her mind to the mind within the object.

To illustrate what absorption means I give an example from my 20s.
On one occasion when I had taken the drug LSD I hallucinated a caterpillar (or more correctly, my consciousness was transported to where that particular caterpillar happened to be). I seemed to become one with that caterpillar – I could feel its feelings. A kind of temporary one-sided symbiosis (I do not know if that caterpillar was aware of me, or of my feelings). The knower and the known became one. What in fact occurred was that my mind came into union with the mind of that caterpillar, so enabling me to know it. 

Absorption indicates the union of two minds.

In self-absorption the individual takes their own idealism or their own mystical aspirations as their object ; the two minds are those of their own ego plus their idealised image of themself. So in self-absorption, the person effectively identifies with their own idealised image of themself. When an inanimate object is used as the focus of concentration, the mind that the meditator unites with is the mind of the immanent consciousness within the object.  [My view of the material universe is pantheistic in the broad sense, that is, the world is part of god but god is more than the totality of the universe].

For many poets and artists, absorption can take the form of absorption into Nature. Laing, in The Divided Self, page 91, gives a description of an experience by James. James began to feel a tremendous oneness with the whole world. This both amazed and terrified him. He wanted to be absorbed into infinity, yet was afraid to do so since it meant losing his self. There is no half-way stage to absorption : the person either becomes absorbed into himself or absorbed into Nature.

This longing for absorption is a characteristic of a mentality which is narcissistic. Absorption is the quintessence of feeling. It is the entrancement with emotion. The person becomes absorbed into love, even though it is usually self-love.

Summary 1

I sum up these ideas on identification and absorption

The ego functions through identification. Evolution is a gradual process of changing identifications, and of reflecting identification back onto itself to produce self-absorption. Once the infant has exhausted all the possibilities inherent in identification with the sensual body, then to support its continuing evolution the ego progresses to identification with the mother, then to the father, to peers (or to itself), to teachers. Eventually it graduates to identification with its own idealised mind. In the course of time (a scenario presupposing a time scan of countless incarnations) it will progress to some degree of identification with the mind of the absolute reality (or god).

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Social Approval and Inferiority

Laing, in his book  The Self and Others, discusses the concept of confirmation. Each person needs to be supported in his or her sense of self by the confirmation of other people. A person can also have his or her sense of self negated when subjected to social rejection. Laing explores the ways of confirming and disconfirming other people. We may confirm someone through a responsive smile, or a handshake, or an expression of sympathy. We may do this wholeheartedly or merely in a lukewarm fashion. We may confirm some aspects of the other person, whilst disconfirming other aspects that we do not like.

I prefer the term ‘social approval ’ instead of ‘confirmation’ because it indicates better what the underlying requirement is. This need to have one’s self confirmed and validated by other people, this need for social approval, means the psychological requirement of a person to become socially integrated in an harmonious way. 

The way in which I understand confirmation is that the person seeks that which was missing in their childhood. The infant needs love from the parents. If this is not forthcoming, or if it is not sufficient in quantity, then the infant is not confirmed in its social persona and its ego will become fragile and unstable. The less the love that the child received, the greater is the need for the confirmation of one’s self by other people. It is usually through favourable, satisfying relationships that the person seeks to fulfil themself, psychologically rather than pleasurably ; the need for social approval is often more important than the pursuit of happiness.

This necessity for social approval is a need, not a desire. Hence it acts as a powerful incentive to become involved in social activities. This need arises within the self-pity mode of jealousy. [The theme of jealousy in self-pity mode is ‘I need a reward from other people’]. A person may often only need one other person to give him/her the required social approval. This is usually the function of a spouse or a partner.

A distinction is necessary here.
The need for social approval inculcates conformity in the person – this is the drawback.
By comparison, love produces uniformity, since everything has the same value ; uniformity is the limitation of love.

In social relationships, uniformity needs to be separated from conformity.

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Now I turn to another idea. Alfred Adler introduced the concept of the inferiority complex. This feeling of inferiority is derived from physical disability or from faulty relationships. My interpretation of the complex is that it arises when a person finds themself in a situation where their abilities and attitudes are denigrated or rejected by other people. He /she then strives to develop themself according to their own standards and values. He /she strives to develop themself so as to provide their own justification of themself, to provide their own sense of satisfaction in their own worth as a person. This is an existential process.

The inferiority complex is a need to validate one’s self by oneself ; it is the need for individual accomplishment. He /she does not seek social approval in order to do this. He /she does not judge themself by the criteria of other people. The inferiority complex is an attribute of the vanity mode of narcissism. [The theme of narcissism in vanity mode is ‘I will do it my way’].

Summary 2

I summarise these two needs.

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The need for social approval and the inferiority complex are two ideas that require to be separated. Some writers have thought that when a person strives to attain a social goal then he /she is acting from an inferiority complex. This is not so ; the person is acting from the need for social approval.

One of the difficulties of being a creative artist or thinker is that the sensitivity that the person acquires is derived from a deep sense of inferiority. The artist or thinker finds that their creativity sets them apart from normal people. Then he /she begins to yearn for social approval. 

Thomas Mann, in his short story Tonio Kroger, describes the predicament of the artistic male who wants to reject his sensitivity because it produces an almost impassable barrier to normal relationships. He yearns for familiar human happiness, for the commonplace, the banal – in other words, the normal, respectable and admirable concerns of ordinary people. What the artist or thinker recognises belatedly is that the satisfaction of conquering the inferiority complex does not necessarily lead to the satisfaction of acquiring social skills in everyday relationships.

The failure of traditional social views is in the assumption that needs can cross-link. An individual may focus on achieving a difficult personal ambition ; for example he /she may become a self-made millionaire. Then they hope that their money will buy social approval ; but usually they attract only sycophants. Or a person may focus on cultivating social popularity ; but when fashion changes or the breath of scandal touches him /her, they are left in the cold and find that they have not achieved anything worthwhile within themself.

These two needs are separate and distinct, and have to be addressed separately if harmony is to be attained. [6]

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Narcissism and Jealousy

When I was reading Laing’s books one word that caught my eye was ‘smothered’. Smothering is an aspect of what Laing terms ‘engulfment ’, the process of being absorbed into the personality of another person. This process is also that of jealousy. I set up a binary:

Absorption in self versus Absorption in another person
(depends on Narcissism) (depends on Jealousy)

Absorption in another person means almost the same as identification with that person. The only difference is that children and adolescents may feel identification with someone to be embracing, whilst the adult will view an identification that feels threatening to him /her as an engulfment.

It was this occasion when I when realised that narcissism is binary to jealousy. This binary sets up self-absorption against an identification with someone who is external to self. I considered my relationships ; they focus on intensity (a sure sign that absorption or identification is involved). I can choose either absorption in myself or absorption in another person. When I am centred in narcissism I do not need other people. Then I understood that it is narcissism that propels the person towards individuality. By comparison, jealousy keeps a person socially defined. Jealousy can also produce the manipulation of the person that one wants to be absorbed in.

These ideas bring me back to the concept of power.

a).  For the social person, power is channelled through jealousy. This is the desire for power.

b).  For the individual person, power is channelled through narcissism. This is the will to power.

In society the primary polarisation of a stable person is usually to the issue of power. For a man, if he wants it in a social sense his motivation is jealousy and he orientates towards social control. Power is channelled into whatever aspects of society he thinks are important. Whether this power is used benevolently or otherwise depends on other factors. If he wants to be an individual then his motivation is narcissism and he uses his power to orientate towards freedom. Power is channelled into the development of forms of individuality and creativity. In a child these inclinations are likely to be mixed up due to transference and to social institutions like schools.

This orientation, this choice between jealousy and narcissism, determines his response to power and to the way that he seeks either social attainments or self-achievements.

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Absorption can work in either direction. In an adult relationship, either adult can be absorbed into the other one. The same process works even in an adult-child relationship.
For example, I watched a mother who kept shouting orders to her child every few minutes ; she refused to let him play as he wanted. I could see the resentment in his face. This mother was refusing to let the child be independent ; she was controlling him when there was no need to. This is jealousy. This is the refusal to allow the child to become different in any way that is at odds with the mother’s desire to mould him according to her views, her needs, according to her use of the child as a vehicle for her absorption. The idea that the parent becomes absorbed into the child is only another way of saying that the parent is going to use the child as a way of fulfilling that parent’s ambitions in life, irrespective of what the child wants to achieve.

Jealousy in the mother can produce problems in the child. Jealousy can switch on love to the child, and also switch it off. This can create resentment in the child ; he may become defensive and surly. He can react to the switching off of love from the mother by himself switching off love to the mother. This is one of the reasons for the flight into autism. A child who develops a simmering resentment as a defence against jealousy in the parent becomes a lonely child. Then when he grows into an adult, if he partners a jealous woman he eventually becomes a lonely man.

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Summary 3

I summarise these ideas.

When the person’s internal drive functions through jealousy it leads to the desire for power. This power is channelled through the social concepts that interest the person, the concepts that define his /her views of sociality. He /she focuses on desires that will enable them to grasp some degree of social power – the bottom line being the ability to care for or manipulate a spouse or a child.

When narcissism produces the drive then it becomes the means of ejecting them from the collectivity and making an individual out of them. The will to power ensures that the person focuses on concepts of self-achievement that will enable them to acquire a fulfilling individuality. However, the person may find it very difficult to fit back into society and relationships once he /she has satisfied their needs. [7]

The whole concept of power revolves around
the jealousy - narcissism binary.


The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. For the addresses of my websites, see the Links page.

[¹]. The differences between consciousness and ego are described on my website A Modern Thinker, in the section on Sign Systems. [1]

[²]. In my view, the ego is created in the first few months of life. For an analysis of this period, see the article Vulnerability of the Ego, on my website Patterns of Confusion. A shorter version of this article is Creating the Ego, on my website Discover Your Mind[2]

[³]. Identification features jealousy in love mode. See the article on Transference.
My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See home page. [3]

[4]. See the article Confusion. [4]

[5]. The binary nature of emotions is described in the first article on Emotion, section Influence of Value. [5]

[6]. It is easy to confuse the inferiority complex with the need for social approval. There are two tests for separating these needs. See either the article Approval, Inferiority and Power, on my website Discover Your Mind ; or the article Social Approval and Inferiority on my website The Subconscious Mind[6]

[7]. The terms 'desire for power ' and 'will to power ' are explained in the article Power. [7]


Laing, R.D. The Divided Self. Penguin, 1987.

---- Self and Others. Penguin, 1988.

Mann, Thomas. Tonio Kroger. This is a short story contained in : Death in Venice and Other Short Stories. Heinemann, Secker & Warburg, 1983.

Home List of  Articles Links Top of Page

The articles in this section are :

Transference - introduces the patterns of bonding.

Projection and Introjection - the basic loop of desire and emotion.

Power - the loop of power and happiness.

Aspects of Personal Identity - inferiority, social approval, and more.

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so long as the source is acknowledged.

Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath
All Rights Reserved

Ian Heath
London, UK

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