Tagged: neurosis

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)

Anima Projection and the Guru’s Neurotic Wife

There is a dynamic that develops between certain pairs of men and women in relationship. She “is needy and desperate”, he “cold and distant.” The farther away he gets, the more desperate she becomes; the more desperate she becomes, the farther away he gets. The cycle is horrible, the pain intolerable, the confusion and tension almost literally palpable.

I’ve just returned from seeing the movie The Last Station, the semi-biographical biopic about Leo Tolstoy, and I cannot help but write. I love Tolstoy’s work, it has influenced my own life and the lives of some of the world’s greats (Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, to name two) but I wonder if what the film depicted regarding Tolstoy’s marriage is true. And what if it is?

The Last Station depicts a scenario in which Tolstoy has created a colony and nation of admirers. They revere him, trust him, love him, and he them. But his wife feels abandoned. She feels unloved, disrespected, tossed aside. She mocks his work on love and generosity because she does not feel he expresses those virtues towards her. And she goes crazy. She is mocked for being crazy, further excluded from his life by those who edge closer and closer to him as his disciples. But what is occurring, truly, if a man loves “everyone” but cannot truly love his wife? Is what he is espousing truly love?

A couple of years ago I read a passage from Carl Jung, a vignette, of which this film reminds me strongly. In his essay entitled “The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious” (par. 306-309), Jung wrote:

The construction of a collectively suitable persona means a formidable concession to the external world, a genuine self-sacrifice which drives the ego straight into identification with the persona, so that people really do exist who believe they are what they pretend to be. . . . When we examine such cases critically, we find that the excellence of the mask is compensated by the “private life” going on behind it. . . . I once made the acquaintance of a very venerable personage — in fact, one might easily call him a saint. I stalked round him for three whole days, but never a mortal failing did I find in him. My feeling of inferiority grew ominous, and I was beginning to think seriously of how I might better myself. Then, on the fourth day, his wife came to consult me . . . Well, nothing of the sort has ever happened to me since. . . . Any man who becomes one with his persona can cheerfully let all disturbances manifest themselves through his wife without her noticing it, though she pays for her self-sacrifice with a bad neurosis.

This is some of the most important and socially revolutionary commentary that Jung ever made. Acknowledging the subtle projective relationships between partners was a win for women everywhere. Despite the attacks they have both received to the contrary, both Jung and Freud may have been some of the most adamant feminists in their day. Both men saw that where there was female hysteria, there was also a trail of social and marital unrest. What looks to originate in the wife may, in fact, not be her character at all on display — but ours, or his.

[The] identifications with a social role are a very fruitful source of neuroses. . . . To the degree that the world invites the identification with the mask, he is delivered over to influences from within. . . . Outwardly an effective and powerful role is played, while inwardly an effeminate weakness develops in face of every influence coming from the unconscious. . . .The persona, the ideal picture of a man as he should be, is inwardly compensated by feminine weakness, and as the individual outwardly plays the strong man, so he becomes inwardly a woman, i.e., the anima, for it is the anima that reacts to the persona. But because the inner world is dark and invisible to the extraverted consciousness, and because a man is all the less capable of conceiving his weaknessses the more he is identified with the persona, the persona’s counterpart, the anima, remains in the dark and is at once projected, so that our hero comes under the heel of his wife’s slipper. If this results in a considerable increase of her power, she will acquit herself none too well. She becomes inferior, thus providing her husband with the welcome proof that it is not he, the hero, who is inferior in private, but his wife.

Thus it has been with men of lofty ideals and high intelligence throughout history. They are revered, respected, their character cherished. The more society loves them, the more they believe themselves to be the Messiah himself. And the more they identify with their persona of greatness, the more they make those around them perfectly crazy. The narcissistic identification with their own greatness leads them to sabotage not only their own lives, but create ruin among those who knew them and loved them. They become captured completely, convinced — if not for a shadow of guilt within them that they cannot face for fear of seeing their own lack of consciousness — that they are completely sane while their wives (or children) are ungrateful and unworthy of their time or affection.

But watch what happens when the two are finally broken apart. Who gets sane, and who goes crazy . . . or takes another lover on which to project his unconscious and avoid seeing his true self?

This is not esoteric philosophy. It’s a scenario played-out in the streets and in homes daily. As we revere handsome, talented and “feeling” men, their true emotions and ability to connect become disconnected, while they go about thinking that they are the infallible men that everyone believes them to be. The time of reckoning, which always should have come so much sooner, proves in the end how very wrong everyone was. If one is to be high up in the stars of ideals and faith, the only spiritual balance one can find on this earth is to have at least one foot firmly rooted in embodiment and family. A chaotic home life should be an indication to everyone that something is wrong. By seeking distance and connection to perfection, the counterparts in one’s home must balance one’s life by sinking deeper into the depths.

Beware of who you worship. No one is ever a guru of endless compassion if he cannot love the one he’s with.