6 The Origin and Outcome of the Idealized Self-Image

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To understand the idealized self-image, we need to understand the reason it has come into being. If we follow the threads back to its origin, we find the real culprit, the root cause: duality. Duality is essentially our great struggle between life and death; it is the illusion that there is always a question of either/or. It’s either you or it’s me; it can’t be both.

The idealized self wants to be perfect right now. The real self knows this isn't possible and isn't bothered by the one little bit. The more trapped we are in duality, the more we will see life in extremes: we’re either happy or unhappy. Happiness is a code word for life, and unhappiness is code for death. In duality, everything can always be tucked up under these two categories.

As long as we’re hooked into duality, we can’t possibly accept that life contains both. In our minds, we might get this, but in our emotions, nothing doing. If we’re unhappy now, we feel like we’ll be unhappy forever. And so the struggle begins. It’s tragic and destructive, this fight we engage in against death and unhappiness, and worse yet, it’s completely unnecessary.

Truth is, birth is painful for the infant. And then after we arrive, we meet with other painful experiences. Sure, there’s pleasure too, but there’s just no escaping our knowledge that unpleasantness is possible. It really happens. Our fear of this is ever-present, and that creates a problem for us.

So we devise a countermeasure that we falsely believe will circumvent unhappiness, unpleasantness and death: we create an idealized self-image. Note, the idealized self-image is essentially the same thing as the Mask Self, whose mission is to mask the real self by pretending to be something we are not. In short, then, this is a pseudo-protection that doesn’t work worth a damn. And yet we all do this; it’s universal. Not only does it not avoid anything bad, it brings on the very thing we dread the most and fight so hard against. Brilliant.

Depending on our personality type, we will experience certain things as being dismally woeful; what that is varies by type, which is determined by our character and temperament. At any rate, something will make us unhappy, and that automatically makes us feel insecure. There’s a direct correlation between being unhappy and not believing in ourselves; our self-confidence takes a hit that is proportional to how badly we feel. Our idealized self-image is supposed to avoid all that by supplying the missing self-confidence. This, we think, by way of our unconscious reasoning, will lead us straight down the road to pleasure supreme.

We’re not really that far off from the truth. In reality, having genuine self-confidence gives us peace of mind. When we have a healthy sense of independence and feel secure about ourselves, we can maximize our talents and have fruitful relationships; we’ll lead a constructive life.

But since the self-confidence we get through our idealized self is artificial, the results can’t possibly live up to our expectations. Because according to spiritual law, ya just can’t cheat life. Oh, rats. Further, we’ll be extra frustrated because cause and effect won’t be obvious. It will take some deep work just to see the link between our fake version of ourselves and our unhappiness. But until we discover and dissolve our idealized self—our falsified version of ourselves we so often present to the world—we won’t be able to uncover our true self; we won’t have the security and self-respect needed to get the most out of our lives.

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So how did all this come about? In one way or another, as a child, it was made clear to us that we should be good, holy, perfect. When we weren’t, we were somehow punished. Perhaps the worst punishment was when our parents withdrew their affection. They were angry and we felt we were no longer loved. So then: “being bad” equals punishment and unhappiness, and “being good” equals rewards and happiness. What to do, what to do. Tough call, said no one ever!

It became an absolute must then to be “good” and be “perfect.” This wasn’t just a good idea, but a matter of life or death, or so it seemed. Still, somewhere deep down, we knew we weren’t as perfect as all that, which seemed like a truth we’d better hide. This, then, became our dirty little secret, and we started to build a false self to cover it up. This false self was going to protect us and allow us to get what we really wanted: happiness, security and self-confidence.

After a while, we became less and less aware of our false front. But even though our awareness of our mask vanished, the guilt of pretending to be something we were not hung around. Being permanently permeated with guilt, we strained all that much harder to become our false self—this idealized self. We convinced ourselves that if we just tried hard enough, one day we’d get there; we’d become our idealized version of ourselves.

But this artificial process of squeezing ourselves into something we’re not can’t ever deliver authentic growth, self-improvement and self-purification. Because we’re building on a false base, and we’re leaving out the real self. No kidding, we’re desperately trying to hide it.

Our idealized self-image can take on different forms, and doesn’t always adhere to recognized standards of perfection. Oh yes, it is often shooting for moral high ground, which of course makes it harder to question its validity: “Isn’t is right to always try to be loving and decent and understanding, never becoming angry or having any faults? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”

But just under this lies a compulsive attitude that denies what’s actually here now: imperfection and a lack of humility. These are what prevent us from accepting ourselves as we are in this moment, not to mention our pride that wants to hide our shame, secretiveness, guilt and anxiety, all of which we’re so fearful of exposing. Once we’ve done a significant amount of personal work, we’ll start to see the difference between feeling a genuine desire for gradual improvement, and the pretense of the idealized self that just wants to click some ruby slippers together now and look better. We fear the world will come to an end if we don’t keep holding up our ridiculously high standards, and we put crazy demands on ourselves to “be good.”

Depending on our personality and early life situations, we might prefer the facets of the idealized self that aren’t usually considered ethical or moral. We glorify being overly ambitious and are proud of our aggression and hostility. We idealize being not-so-good. True enough, these negative tendencies are behind the screens of every idealized self-image, but usually we kept them hidden since they clash so badly with our strict high standards. This actually causes no small amount of anxiety, because we don’t want to get busted for being the frauds we really are.

Those of us who glorify negative traits, thinking they prove how strong and independent we are, would be deeply ashamed to don the “goodness” mask of another’s idealized self; we prefer to feel superior and aloof. The other seems weak and vulnerable and dependent, in a not-good way. But what we’re overlooking is just how vulnerable our pride makes us—there is nothing that causes us so much fear.

So here’s an example of what many of us do—we combine these two approaches. We create overly exacting standards that no one can possibly live up to, and then take pride in being invulnerable and superior to everyone. That puts the psyche in a real pinch. But consciously, we’re not even aware we’re doing this. Until now. In our individual work, we need to find just what mechanism is running in our own inner self, as there are many, many options for how we can play this.

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So let’s look at how, in general, our idealized self affects us. Since the nutty standards are impossible to reach—and yet we never give up trying to uphold them—we create an inner tyranny of the worst kind. We don’t realize just how impossible our demands are and we never stop whipping ourselves to meet them, so we feel like complete failures when we prove, once again, that we fall short.

A sense of abject worthlessness comes over us when we can’t live up to our fantastic demands, and this engulfs us in misery. Sometimes we’re aware of this misery, but most of the time we’re not. Or we don’t connect the dots with how much we expect from ourselves. Then we try to cover up our reactions to our own “failing;” the means we choose for this is to blame. Someone or something else must be to blame for our failure.

The harder we try to be our idealized self, the more disillusioning it is when it doesn’t work. This dilemma is at the heart of many a crisis, but instead we look at outer difficulties as the major menace. The mere existence of our difficulties seems to prove to us that we’re not as perfect as we intend to be, and that further robs us of self-confidence. For some personality types, this becomes so internalized, we think our whole life is permeated with failure.

But the very notion that, as human beings, we can be perfect is an illusion—and it’s a dishonesty. It’s like we’re saying, “I know I’m not perfect, but I am going to make believe I am.” It’s tough to argue with this when we throw this in front of a wall of honorable standards and a wish to be good. But that still doesn’t make it possible.

What we can do is have a genuine desire to better ourselves, which leads to accepting ourselves as we are right now. If this is the premise for wanting to move in the direction of perfection, then any discovery that we’ve not arrived won’t throw us into a tizzy. Rather, it will make us stronger. We won’t need to exaggerate how bad we are, but we also won’t need to defend against it and blame others for it. What an eye-opener.

We’ll take responsibility for our faulty sides, and step up for the consequences. But when we are masquerading in our idealized-self costume, that’s the last thing we want to do. Because then we’d have to admit that we, in fact, are not our idealized self. The flashing lights that tell us our façade is in the house are: a sense of failure and frustration, a compulsion to fix everything and make it “right,” and guilt and shame over the truth we’re trying to hide.

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We started down this road in order to boost our self-confidence. Happiness, we thought, lay just around the corner. But the more we feel we have to fake it, the more the real deal fades away. Now we think less of ourselves than when we started; insecurity builds. This is what we call a vicious circle. What needs to come down is this whole super-self that is a merciless tyrant: the idealized self.

In our work, we have to come face-to-face with how it operates in our life. Because the drastic result of this superstructure is that it keeps us constantly estranged from our own real self. It’s a phony, rigid face that we invest with our real being. But it’s an artificial construction that will never come to life. The more we invest into it, the more strength we sap from the center of our being.

But the center is the only part actually capable of growth. It’s the only part that can properly guide us. It’s flexible and intuitive; its feeling are valid and true, even if they aren’t yet pure and perfect. But relative to what we’re now doing under the guise of our idealized self, the real self is a far cry better. We simply can’t be more than we really are in any given life situation.

The more we extract from our life center and pump into this robot we’ve created, the more we impoverish ourselves. That is so totally not what we were going for. When we have no sense of who we really are, we are feeling this gap we have made and the gaping hole that has resulted. Only by seeing what’s going on can we color inside the lines of our being, and fill in our missing sense of self. Then our intuition will come back to life and our spontaneity will surface, our compulsions will recede and we will trust our feelings that will have a chance to grow and mature. Believe it or not, our feelings will become every bit as reliable as our intellect.

This is what it means to find ourselves. But we’ll need to clear quite a few hurdles before this can be done, including shedding the burden of this pseudo-solution. There’s not a single theory in the world that will convince us to give it up until we see for ourselves the damage it is doing. The idealized self is the image of all images—it’s a majorly huge wrong conclusion about how life works—and we need to dissolve it.

When we are depressed or feeling acute anxiety, we need to consider that our idealized self-image may feel questioned and threatened. Maybe it’s by our own limitations or maybe it’s by the reality of life. Feel around to see if there is self-contempt lurking nearby. We need to see where we are caught in pride, and notice the self-punishment that often follows. We get so impatient and irritated with ourselves when we fall short—which of course is bound to happen—and this can quickly snowball into fury and rage. It’s hard to take this much self-hate so we explode it all over others. So if we’re compulsively angry at others, consider that maybe we’re just mad at ourselves for not living up to unrealistic standards.

We’ve got to unroll this whole process and see it in its entirety. We should never let our idealized self-image get away with using outer problems as an excuse for inner turmoil. And remember that no one can do this work alone. Also keep in mind that even if we don’t act out our bad behavior on others, there can still be a negative effect on the self that includes disease, accidents, and other kinds of outer failure and loss.

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Giving up the idealized self is so liberating. This is truly the feeling of being born again; our real self will emerge. Then we can rest, centered inside ourselves. Then we can grow for real, not just on the outer fringes. At first, we’ll react differently to life, then outer things are bound to change. This is the shift in our attitude creating a new effect.

We’ll overcome an important aspect of life-or-death duality, because we’ll see and heal the contractions that live inside us. When we don’t have to hold on so tight to our idealized self, and we sense the damage our inner tightness causes, this will make letting go possible. For when we keep ourselves contained inside ourselves, we go against the fundamental grain of life. When we learn that we can squander ourselves into life, the same way that nature squanders herself, we will then know the beauty of living.

The idealized self wants to be perfect right now. The real self knows this isn’t possible, and it isn’t bothered by this one little bit. Changing these things takes time. So if we are self-centered, we need to own up to it; we can cope with this and learn to understand it, and with each new insight it will diminish. We’ll notice that, by George, the more self-centered we feel, the less self-confident we can be. The idealized self wants us to believe an opposite story.

When we speak of “coming home,” we really mean finding our way back to ourselves. But this is often misinterpreted as meaning the return to the Spirit World after death. Yet we can die one Earth-life after another, and if we don’t find our real self, we can’t come home. We’ll remain lost until we find the center of our being.

On the other hand, we can find our way home right now while we’re still in our body. It might seem that the real self is less than our idealized self, but in fact, we’ll find it’s so much more. From our real self, we function from our wholeness, instead of from “hole-ness.” When we break the iron grip of our idealized self, we will have broken the whip of a taskmaster we can’t possibly obey. Then we’ll know the peace that surpasses all understanding; we will find inner security, for real.

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Read Original Pathwork® Lecture: #83 The Idealized Self-Image

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