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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind

The Reality of the Body

by John Lawson 1998, 2006 

    The popular 'ego'... behaves like a stock or a piece of merchandise endowed with self-awareness;
if it is much in demand it rises, is blown up, feels important; if not, it falls, shrinks, feels it is nothing.

Ernest G. Schachtel, "On Alienated Concepts of Identity" [1]

    All of us begin life as a functionally differentiated part of nature, governed by the needs that are inherent in our organismic structure.  We must breathe, take in nourishment, expel wastes, adapt ourselves to our environment, make sounds, move, sleep, and dream.  Our needs change as we mature. The infant's primary requirements are for warmth, contact with the mother, a breast to suckle, and protection.  The toddler has new needs, especially the need to venture forth and explore the world in the context of the safety and support of parental guidance, supervision, and attention.  The young boy or girl needs unambiguous and consistent acknowledgment and approval in order to develop a secure experience of individuality anchored in a firm sense of gender identity.  At each step of the way, developmental tasks must be accomplished; organic learning must take place. 
    Organic learning takes place on a bodily level.  The mouth sucks, the arms reach out, the heart opens, the smile emerges, the eyes sparkle, the legs jump for joy, the forehead frowns, the voice cries out and laughs and sings, the fists clench, feelings flow, and the mind thinks.  These are all bodily  phenomena, and what would a person be without them?  These and countless other bodily states and activities are the essence of life and the basis upon which we form our self-image.  At each stage of our development, we build upon the secure foundation that has been laid in the previous stages of our growth.  In so doing, we develop an integrated self-awareness that is firmly rooted in our somatic experience and clearly reflected in our behavior.  Our sense of being an individual allows us to say "I" confidently, and we have no need to be "hung up" on our ego, because we are grounded in our bodily reality.  We are free to relate to other human beings in terms of our genuine needs, and we are not afraid of being alone, because we feel ourselves to be a part of nature and we are in touch with our humanity.
    Unfortunately, few people in our culture achieve such a state of healthy functioning.  Most of us have experienced not only injuries, but insults as well during the formative stages of our development.  Recently, for example, I spoke with an individual who recounted to me the negative attitudes toward sexuality that his parents and the teachers at his religious school communicated to him throughout his childhood.  He was made to feel that any sexual self-expression was wrong and sinful.  More than that, he was made to understand, through many subtle and not-so-subtle messages, that not only sexual activity but also sexual feelings were to be condemned.  Of course, this person had sexual feelings, as all of us do, and he could not help, under the circumstances, developing inner conflicts concerning his sexual drives and their expression.  In order to suppress his feelings, he had to dampen his breathing, restrict his movements, and rigidify his posture.  He had to adopt a stance of being serious, sensitive, and spiritual in order to avoid the emergence of unacceptable feelings that were pleasurable, joyful, and down-to-earth.  In order to live with his conflicts, he came to identify with the saintly mask that he had learned to don under duress.  Behind the mask, however, were guilt and shame.  Fortunately, these feelings of guilt and shame were not completely buried. They caused discomfort, and this discomfort opened the way for healthy self-confrontation and working-through of problems.  Not all individuals, however, are so lucky.  Their identification with a glorified self-image may be so strong that they are unwilling to confront their inner conflicts and challenge their narcissism.
    In modern culture, narcissism is expressed in the denial of the body.  We speak of the narcissist as one who is obsessed with the pursuit and cultivation of an idealized self-image.  This idealized self-image serves a defensive function in that it acts as a protection against underlying painful feelings of inferiority and worthlessness.  The narcissist, however, is unaware of this defensive function.  He identifies himself with his glorified self-image.  He is prepared to deny reality in order to protect his inflated ego.  He invests his energies in convincing others - and especially himself - that the mask he wears is real.  To the extent that he is able to sustain his idealized self-image, he succeeds in keeping underlying painful feelings at bay.  The price he pays for such a maneuver, however, is the alienation of his true self.  This alienation is rooted in the denial of feelings.  Since feelings exist at the bodily level, the core of the narcissist's problem is the denial of the reality of the body.  What factors are responsible for bringing about such a denial?
    On an individual level, narcissistic tendencies begin during the early stages of personal development, when one's needs for unconditional acceptance, nurturance, and understanding are disregarded.  What babies and children so often encounter, instead of a healthy response to their needs, are demands that they behave inauthentically as a condition for receiving some degree of love.  The basic anxiety that emerges in such a situation can be described as a fear of abandonment.  In attempting to ward off the prospect of abandonment, the infant or child strives to conform to the dictates of his or her caregivers.  Many authors have commented on this process. [2]  For the sake of clarity, it is necessary to make several observations.  First, abandonment, properly considered, is a very active process; it includes all those behaviors that impinge upon and threaten the basic security of the child.  Letting an infant "cry itself out," for example, represents not simply a failure of adults to be available when needed; it is an active assault on the young human being, who naturally expects to be cared for.  In the second place, it makes a great deal of difference at what stage of the young person's development unnecessary frustrations and anxieties occur.  Obviously, the younger and more immature the organism is, the weaker its self-protective capabilities will be.  A third consideration is the intensity, frequency, and duration of the abandoning behavior with which the child must contend.  The less severe such behavior is, the less damage there will be to the development of the growing person.  The fourth point to make is that no child faces the prospect of abandonment without protesting. The nature and the degree of the protest will vary, depending on many factors.  How the young person protests - what manner of protest is possible under the circumstances - will, in any case, be a major determining factor in the development of his or her adult personality.  Whether a person becomes basically withdrawn, clinging, compliant, stubborn, vindictive, or manipulative, for example, will depend upon the protest he or she has learned to employ during early life.  It is in this sense that character structure can be understood to be a response to unresolved childhood conflicts.
    I believe that few, if any of us, in today's world are completely free of narcissistic elements in our personality.  The reason for the prevalence of narcissism at the personal level is that the culture in which we live fosters and supports such a condition.  The pervasiveness of seductive images in advertising, for example, is apparent to all who care to take notice.  The extent and intensity of such images have increased greatly in recent decades.  There has been an explosion of pornography, and there has been a mounting obsession with the mindless pursuit of superficial fun and entertainment.  It has become fashionable to be cynical.  The goal for many people has come to be the avoidance of the unpleasantness associated with self-confrontation.  It is the prospect of avoiding such unpleasantness that makes the narcissistic lifestyle seem so attractive.  In the pursuit of avoidance, reasonable limits dictated by propriety and personal integrity are discarded.  In their place emerges a set of values cut off from the deeper realities of human experience rooted in the true needs of the organism.
    In spite of the fact that we live in a narcissistic culture, not all people are affected to the same degree by the pressures to conform which such a situation exerts.  It is important, therefore, to distinguish between narcissistic personality traits and a narcissistic character structure. As I have suggested, few of us are entirely free of narcissistic tendencies in our make-up.  Nonetheless, such tendencies do not necessarily dominate who we are, and we may view them as a challenge to be confronted in the process of our growth and development.  On the other hand, it cannot be denied that some individuals have great difficulty ever seeing beyond - or seeing through - a glorified image of themselves.  Their entire personality seems to be caught up in an elaborate fantasy of self-aggrandizement, and they seek to elicit the confirmation of their fantasy in the mirroring behavior of others.  This is the picture of the narcissistic personality type of our time, who is hung up on success, obsessed with power, addicted to cheap thrills and over-stimulation, and committed to winning at virtually any cost.  For such an individual, sexual promiscuity and acting out are the norm.  In everyday language, a person of this type used to be described as "stuck on himself" or "in love with himself."  Today such behavior is considered "cool."  The problem with all of this self-glorification is that - regardless of how successful it appears - it remains a defense against an inner experience of impotence and helplessness, and it represents an abandonment of the deep human feelings that are the only basis for real meaning and personal fulfillment in life.
    The reality of the body is a feeling realityIt is rooted in autonomic processes, such as deep breathing, spontaneous movement, and emotional expressiveness.  These processes are natural elements of the human condition.  The body which is open and alive is characterized by spontaneity and meaningfulness.   It is a thinking body which places a high value on personal integrity, because personal integrity is based upon the functional integration of one's body and mind.  Such integration is the basis of personal authenticity and genuineness.  Because our current narcissistic culture fosters impulsiveness and self-abandonment - qualities which are destructive of healthy functioning -  it is important that we develop the capacity to resist being overwhelmed by that culture.  Questioning the validity of such a culture is a necessary step in reorienting our thinking in a constructive direction.  Such a reorientation involves recognizing the importance of the life of the body.  Getting to the bottom of our problems, getting our feet on the ground, and identifying ourselves with life are part of a process that serves to break the spell of the seductive images that might otherwise lead us away from ourselves. Our ego then becomes a valued part of ourselves, engaged in the struggle for personal authenticity, a struggle that leads toward self-acceptance and self-expression and to the lessening of that alienation which, as Ernest Schachtel suggests in the passage quoted at the beginning of the present discussion, is a defining feature of our age.

[1] In Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1962),  eds. Eric and Mary Josephson.
[2] See, for example, James F. Masterson and Ralph Klein, eds. Psychotherapy of the Disorders of the Self  (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1989).  Also, see Karen Horney. Neurosis and Human Growth (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1950).

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