Too little ego, too much persona: the Messiah complex and the Borderline state

I spent a considerable part of this Sunday morning reading the latest issue of the New Yorker Magazine (a particularly excellent issue, I might add), and as my lens on life is clearly psychological, I could not help but note that in every article, the psychology of the actors was the prevalent (if not always mentioned) topic at hand. Be it in regards to the Dalai Lama’s form of leadership and consultation of oracles in order to make decisions, or Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to be a part of the in-crowd and struggle with understanding power that led him to create Facebook, one can note the personal psychology that moves each of us in different directions and — often without our conscious choice — rules our lives.

This fact was most apparent in the story about Rachel Yould entitled The Scholar, by Jeffrey Toobin. Rachel was a beautiful, charismatic and brilliant young woman. She was extremely high achieving in seemingly everything she did throughout her young career, but she then seemingly reached a point where she was unable to accomplish her goals and began investing only in acting-as-if, with greater and greater plans set for herself and her future and less and less actually achieved.

While at Oxford, Yould struggled to complete even chapters of her dissertation, failed to impress her professors, and began to conceive of schemes by which she could borrow more and more money from the US government in student loans while continuing to press forward on her ambitions. Living off of enormous debt, she resurrected a journal called the Oxford International Review and found her way into interview a number of esteemed international players, including Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Hamid Karzai, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Wesley Clark. But, as Toobin reports, the O.I.R never amounted to much beyond a confused, bloated publication, overflowing at every end from un-edited material and ideas of grandeur. As Yould’s now ex-husband comments: “She had very big plans for O.I.R., and I don’t really understand what those plans were. She just blew it way out of proportion. I saw it as a scholarly journal, but then she wanted [to] take it further into an organization where students from around the world had a change to get together and share thoughts. I didn’t get it.”

The story continues into various layers of complication. Ultimately, she is jailed for having defrauded the government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, while also weaving a story of having suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her father. (I do not want to diminish the possibility that her accusations against her father are true, though as Toobin paints it, it seems unlikely.)

What I am compelled by is the tragic personality type that can be extraordinarily brilliant, pretty and charming, and clearly capable of accomplishing a great deal, and yet also a fraud twisted-up in her own stories and accusations, and without any close companions or true relationships. (How many of the people whom we look-up to or whose accomplishments we admire are examples of this type?) Toobin nails her psychological landscape perfectly: “With ferocious intensity, Rachel strove first for accomplishments, then merely connections, and, finally, just status, and she made no lasting friends along the way.

In my thesis on early ego development, I argued that this personality type in adulthood is the result of an ego that is not fully formed in childhood and not fully differentiated from the unconscious. Thus, the ego has incredible access to that part of the Self in which everything is possible and almost magical, and the person is charming, artistic, intelligent and talented, invariably referred to as charismatic. But when it comes to true human relationships and to building a solid life for the long-term, the individual does not have enough of a core identity or self-confidence to accomplish those tasks.

As analyst Marie-Louise von Franz (1980) wrote, rather than the ego complex shutting itself away from Self to move into the first half of life from childhood as is developmentally appropriate, for individuals in this borderline state,

the process is disturbed and consequently the ego does not polarize away from the rest of the unconscious personality, but gets vaguely mixed up with it, and then you have a strange personality, either childish or very wise, more or less conscious than other people, and hopelessly unconscious too. (pp. 79-80)

Individuals stuck at this point of ego development therefore may seem to have it all together and receive acclaim for their accomplishments, but after years pass it will come to light that their accomplishments were based on endless debt and their life is littered with failed relationships. It is as if one takes a loan from life and it is not until years pass under the guise of a well-established persona that one’s life catches up with them.

As the story of Rachel’s failed publication suggests to me, there is a secretly harbored and well-entrenched belief of grandeur and the sense that in the future, all disbelievers will be proved wrong. Again, von Franz (1981) characterizes this state perfectly (in discussing the ego of a particular kind of man):

[There] is often, to a smaller or greater extent, a savior or Messiah complex, with the secret thought that one day one will be able to save the world; that the last word in philosophy, or religion, or politics, or art, or something else will be found. This can progress to be a typical pathological megalomania, or there may be minor traces of it in the idea that one’s time “has not yet come.” The one situation dreaded throughout by such a type of man is to be bound to anything whatsoever. There is a terrific fear of being pinned down, or entering space and time completely, and of being the one human being that one is. (p. 2)

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