To understand such problems it is necessary to go back to when you were young. We all begin to store up experiences with the world in a fairly stereotyped way. To start with we have no way of telling the difference between ourselves and the world outside. But gradually we learn that parts of our body are ours and that if they are hurt we are hurt. As life goes on this self-awareness grows and eventually becomes organized into a highly sophisticated concept of self. At this stage we come to see the changing world from the standpoint of our constant self.
To see better how this happens, again let us consider childhood. First of all we learn a view of our self from our parents, and later frorfi friends at school. People we work with help build this self concept too. If the view that others take of us is a favourable one we tend to develop a good self image. But the opposite also occurs, and when this happens we do not feel at all good about it. So much does it hurt that there is a tendency for all of us to make package deals with reality in order to preserve our body image in as favourable a light as possible. Sometimes to obtain this we do things that surprise us or even shock us. Sometimes we tend to behave in weird and wonderful ways to compensate for the damage that we feel has occurred to our body image.
Examples of this unaccountable behaviour are the very fabric of life and living. A man who has a bad self image as a sexually successful person may engage in frenzied sexual and pseudo-sexual exploits to try to repair his self image. A similar state of affairs occurs in women too. A child who does poorly at school will often try to compensate for this on the games field. Sometimes, of course, such devices are highly satisfactory.
Some people, however, do not seem to compensate their way out of their self image problems. When this happens they try to solve the pain they feel in other ways. For example, if one’s self image is disturbed because of what one considers to be unworthy motives (or sins), one way to alleviate anxiety is to rail against similar motives observed in others. This can salvage such an individual’s self image problem to a large extent (proclaiming perhaps ‘I may be bad but look at him!’), but it usually leaves the protester in a high state of agitation and upset.
Yet another emotional package deal is often set up by the person whose self image is being damaged by, say, an intolerant employer, spouse or colleague. He paradoxically reacts by identifying himself with his mentor, and so also becomes hostile and tense. He seems to be saying, ‘I am the boss too in my own way. Look how fierce and nasty 1 can be.’
Another device common in this personal protection game is to displace our agony on to others. Such a person feels impotent to fight the real saboteur of his own self esteem and so he takes it out on others. A child may cruelly hurt the cat when he can’t hurt mummy. A husband may hurl a damaging insult at his wife to make him feel a little better about how he sees himself.