The issue of identity is an important part of both life and psychotherapy.
The following exercise is meant as a way to be curious about the way you conceive yourself and the selves around you, and to challenge what is preconceived.
You may have found that easy! If you didn’t, I think a great many people can empathize with you. Choosing a word or 3 to define your identity can be simple for some, but to others it feels reductive and unpleasant.
Take a look at the list below. Do your words fit into one of these categories? Are there other ideas of identity that fit for you? Are there any categories that don’t? Do your identifiers form a kind of hierarchy, with some more important than others? Does this vary over space (environment) and time?
The following ideas are not definitive; they are only meant to provoke thought and consideration. I’m sure there are others I haven’t mentioned, and many that I have mentioned may fit into more than one category. Paying attention to whether concepts of identity are group/individual or material/non-material can also be helpful and illuminating. Jung, for example, thought the Western world was fundamentally a materialistic one. Do you agree?
Material — If your dominant identity is materialistic, you give a lot of importance to your physical being, to things and possessions. Examples include: skin tone, weight, beauty, height, money, possessions, a house, a reflection in the mirror.
Psychological — Eg. Introvert, depressed, fun, rebellious, survivor, good, anxious, conscious, sad, optimistic, pessimistic, intelligent, creative, kind, conservative.
Religious — A member of an organized religion. Is this a dominant consideration for you? Or perhaps you’re an atheist, or agnostic.
Spiritual — Do you think of people (or yourself) foremost as souls, or as aspects of a divine being?
Job — Does this define you or others? Do you introduce yourself by your job description, or identify others by their place on a work-based hierarchy?
Class — Would you think to describe yourself as blue or white collar, working-class, upper, or middle-class? Is it important that you or others adhere to associated group values?
Culture & Community — Some examples here might be military, creative or regional.
Country — Is nation an important identifier for you?
Personal/Ineffable — This might be a general, unworded or unwordable sense of self or character. Perhaps it’s associated with your name.
Familial/Relationships — Perhaps identity for you is defined by relationships, whether they’re good, bad, multitudinous or otherwise.
Age — Is “old”, “young”, “kid” or “middle-aged” a main identifier for you?
Sex/Gender — To you, is this an important aspect of identity?
Interests/Hobbies — Perhaps you define yourself by your tennis hobby, or being a recreational cyclist.
Desires — We can define ourselves by what we want, or define others by their desires.
Emotional — Perhaps how you feel defines you.
Health/Ill-Health — You may define yourself or others by their health, or by their sickness.
Beliefs — Veganism, for example, is an increasingly popular identifier.
Politics — Eg. John is a right-winger/Erin is a Marxist.
Memory & Narrative — To what extent are we defined by our memories, our stories and myths?
The more I think about this subject, the more complex the question of identity becomes. The projection of identity, or even an insistence that a person adheres to our own (conscious or unconscious) idea of identity is more problematic still.
A point to remember: when we’re reductive about another’s identity; when we try to categorize it narrowly or with shallowness, we can expect a defensive reaction. Reductive labelling disturbs many people, and is especially prevalent online. It’s a key characteristic of bullying and scapegoating as well as self-loathing.
When used aggressively, the language of identity typically becomes reductive. Look out for linguistic clues such as: only, just, nothing but. Eg. I’m nothing but a…
When conversations around identity are fraught, it’s usually because somewhere an attempt is being made to reduce the other to a category, or a narrow set of categories. This dehumanisation is often hurtful, and met with defensive anger.
Even if you don't agree with every detail of Carl Jung's writing, he's worth reading out of consideration for an alternative point of view on our present cultural situation. Jung lived and wrote through the Second World War, a time when hate and tribalism erupted into destruction. His conclusions don't really appear as a part of our dialogue in our present day conversation, if it can be called that - a remarkable fact considering his status as one of the two most influential psychologists of the last century.
Jung was a prolific writer, with an encyclopedic knowledge of many topics, but strains of constant thought percolate through each book, like rich coffee. One such theme can be surmized as a critique of Western mind, which Jung thought was overwhelmingly extravert. Jung believed that Westerners, even religious unbelievers, held a perspective in which "man is small inside, he is next to nothing..."outside" (is) the only reality." By positing God, and Satan, as thoroughly external beings, Westerners had left themselves grovelling, empty, materialistic and powerless against the forces of their own unconscious minds. So alienated were they from their selves, they risked being dominated by Shadow - unconscious impulses, which could be highly destructive and lead to wars and destruction over property, wealth and surface-level differences.
I have a suspicion that Jung would have nodded sagely, and sadly at today's world, for it seems that we have only exaggerated further what disquieted him the most. Our Western preoccupation with materialism has exploded, with resultant notable gains in the sciences in particular, but with it has come the dominance of image, elevated above all else. It has become ever more common for people to view themselves, and others through this inherited lens - one that denies the inner life almost entirely, and focusses instead upon surface identifiers like skin colour, gender, money, clothing and beauty.
One of the risks of this attitude is to allow the unconscious Self, left in shadow, to dominate and run wild. When people talk about a present-day "culture of narcissism" they are often talking about this world that Jung described, and a resultant self-ishness, that has been encouraged until it dominates the social space in a field of rage. The grasping nature of a narcissistic, absented self, corresponds to the actions of an old-school bag vacuum cleaner, in which people are unempathically used as mere supply to fill a void. The narcissistic sufferer is in the painful position of continually warding off the terrors of emptiness, non-existence, and collapse through inflationand a never-ending cycle of needy value-seeking.
In the present context, as in Jung's era, craving for individual attention and legitimacy has extended into Self-groups, defined by materialistic or superficial definitions of identity, which act as proxies for the narcissistic self. Lost in the clamour, outrage and "identity politics" on all sides, is exactly what was lost nearly a hundred years ago: a respect for our inner worlds as shared, rich and deepphenomena, intimately and ultimately connected with everything around us.
"The soul is assuredly not small, but the radiant Godhead itself",says Jung in 1935, paraphrasing a section of the Tibetan Book of the Dead: "The West finds this statement either very dangerous, if not downright blasphemous, or else accepts it unthinkingly and then suffers from a theosophical inflation."
Not for nothing, Jung's work has sometimes been referred to as an aspect of "depth psychology".
A little shout out to the man this morning who greeted the Tim Horton's server by name in the line in front of me, asked about her day, then went on his way with a shared smile. It was a telling micro-interaction, I felt, not least because it felt so different from the usual state of things. It was almost counter-cultural in fact.
Personally, I've come to dislike the word "objectification" - it doesn't address the problem accurately, not least because we are all objects in the world. As an inverse, perhaps "subjectification" holds more validity. The man in the Tim Horton's line made the person behind the counter, quite intentionally, into an individual subject.
No big deal, you might say, but of course, perhaps it isa big deal. Human beings are quite incredibly good at denying one another's subjectivity (often an "unknown"), and filling the resulting hole with projections. "Server" can very easily slip unconsciously to "that which brings me coffee" or the "coffee-thing". In the same way a man or woman can be reduced to a "threat-thing", or an "opportunity-thing" based on their biology, and unacknowledged complexity.
In a world seemly dominated by identity politics on both sides of the political divide, mass society, and (perhaps not coincidentally) problematic online environments, respect for each individual we come across has become increasingly rare. It's as if we meet abstract ideas much of the time, rather than people; something which is dangerous, as well as superficial.
Human beings have a terrible history of encountering one another as abstractions. Since an abstraction is not a true encounter, but an encounter of personally held and projected ideas, it is the breeding ground for all manner of monstrosity, allowing as it does for a reduction of one another to our own prejudice and desire.
As a mechanism, projection and the denial of the individual other are both based upon expressions of self, rather than actual encounters. For this reason, the man in the Tim Horton's line was challenging the most destructive elements of narcissism in society, which are at risk of running amok. I hope this goes without saying: in therapy, we work with individuals!
What happens in a psychotherapist's office is a mystery to most people, and even those who attend sessions are usually unaware of other people's issues. So I thought I'd break the taboo, and let the reader in on a secret, the answer to the question: "what fear comes up the most often?"
I'd say that claustrophobia, for example, is quite common. As is a linked fear of public transportation, particularly the subway and buses. Going beyond the boundaries of a known environment is another. But the largest group that I come across by far is the fear of other people, and within that category, the fear of being judged.
On the surface of things, we can look at that statement, and be somewhat bemused. Why on earth would we so fear judgement? Does it really matter if other people look at us from under raised eyebrows, or act superior when we say something out of synch?
Then again, judgement is what we also seem to fear the most in death. We propose an almighty being who's going to judge us after we pass, and dole out unimaginable punishment to those he (or she) finds lacking, according to strict criteria. The punishment specifically involves being cast out from a place of love, into tortuous hell.
One of the problems with social anxiety is that we make our own fears come true, as if they were a prophecy. We fear being judged and cast out, become very self-conscious, and retreat in order to control our anxiety. We've taken ourselves out of the context, when we want to be in it. We've lost our relationship with what we most desire.
The importance of being in relation is present from birth. We want to attach, we want to relate, we want to find love and other people. The danger and consequences of an infant not gaining those secure relationships forms the core of object relations and attachment theory. But the dangers of being judged are written deeper still, into thousands of years of history.
In our lineages of human experience, there is perhaps no greater danger than being judged, because to be judged is usually to be viewed partially. It is akin to being objectified and reduced. It is therefore, a precondition to the worst of human violence, and a precondition to being scapegoated and othered. Slavery, genocide, tribalism and the dangers faced by infants and children all have the same danger in common: that they might be judged to be a thing, an idea, a single word. Once this happens, we're reduced and vulnerable.
To be cast out of parental love as a child, or a tribe of any kind, is a dangerous thing. We know it down to our bones, particularly if we've been raised in an environment in which that danger has already burned us. As children, we know when we've been treated as "just" a nuisance, "nothing but" a pest, as stupid, an object, or lesser than a sibling. It hurts and damages our sense of identity. We become wary, anxious, and watchful.
Psychotherapy is a relationship that's highly attuned to help you navigate your emotional world. To let you in on another secret: therapists like me are fortunate to be able to be there when people begin to find the inner resources to tackle their social anxiety. It's quite something to see courage emerge to secure its own gradual reward. People will always judge, but when we're able to be present by virtue of our choice, we have wrested our will to relate from the cold talons of our fear.
In the present environment, it's difficult to go a day without hearing about one cultural war or another. One offence given. One or more groups targeted. From the individual, to families, campuses, corporations and nations, we appear stuck in a downward spiral. But could it be that many of these issues are actually not isolated in the way they appear to be? Is there a single dis-ease beneath the siloed battles appearing on our human skin?
This Easter weekend, I took my dog for a walk on a cold Toronto day. I was in one of the city's large parks, and there were many families out, just as I was, enjoying the day. A large dog suddenly came out of the bushes, and lunged for mine, who was quietly walking on a leash. Thirty seconds later, another commotion; again the large dog had attacked another who was peacefully walking along a path. The owner of the attacked dog challenged the owner of the aggressive dog, and a verbal fight broke out. I won't repeat the language here, but let's just say that the aggressive dog owner vociferously defended his "right" to continue walking his dog, off-leash in the public park.
In our cultural times, it would be easy to blame the category called "men", but the word that sprang to my mind on that Easter day, was selfish. It's the same word I think of in connection to many of the more serious abuses of power, within families as well as outside them. An individual can be fundamentally self-involved, and hostile to the other, just as a group or nation can.
As William James pointed out, the self is not limited to the physical body. It reaches to what we're associated with:
"a man's Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account." James, Principles of Psychology 1890
So, it follows that our dogs are (in James' formula) experienced as an extension or part of our selves. Likewise, you and I may have a certain religious order, political persuasion, nationality, skin colour or gender, and feel as if those were a part of us.
Hegel pointed out that beyond the self lies the other, a kind of binary opposite. And it is our attitude to the other that determines so much of the carnage in the world. There's something terribly tempting about sitting inside one category, and casting aspertions on another. That temptation is self, and it's often based on concepts of identity that are, quite literally, skin-deep.
If you have grown up in a narcissistic family, literal or metaphorical, you know what being objectified and othered feels like. As a legitimate self, you are denied. To receive positive attention, you have to pander. Your persona is verified, rather than your true self. You probably know what it is to be made a scapegoat. The result is that you do not feel accepted as an part of the powerful "family".
Relationships to the Other:
Sometimes, we're forced to deny the other. Living in a busy city for example, means that it would be overwhelming to the psyche to acknowledge every passer-by, and to be open and curious about them. We can easily be nudged towards narcissism. Self and self-group exclusivity can easily be implicitly or explicitly encouraged. Othering is always but a regressive step away.
Similarly, we oftenalter the psychological size of the other. We may be judgmental, or use categories to artificially define the other and make them smaller. At the same time, we make our self inflate and feel justified. It's not incidental to note that modern humans habitually treat nature this way. We commonly reduce it to a series of numbers or scientific descriptions. We categorize and utilize it. We often treat animals like things, or nothings.
In psychoanalysis, writers like Lacan and Winnicott have long discussed how the other becomes real. We emerge from our own one-ness as babies, so that the (m)other is no longer just a good or bad narcissisticsupply, or an illusiory aspect of self. Communication, disillusion and the consequences of actions such as biting all contribute to a growth away from one-ness, and towards empathy, true relating and respect. The other can become real, though this is not guaranteed in individual development, and we retain an ability to return to self-centredness, and for a lifetime may find belonging in narcissistically-oriented groups.
In my micro-example, the owner of the aggressive dog was narcissistically, not relationally, present. He was, in extension and effect, biting like a pre-empathic baby. The root of so many familial and societal problems is the same: we deny the other's existence in favour of our own. We reduce. We classify. We project, objectify and favour grandiosity. We fail to empathize and respect. But while it is important to address the existing damage and individual manifestations and symptoms we see about us, we should not ignore the underlying cause, which is not one of skin colour, gender, group or nation, but one of our common and problematic psychology.
I recently read an enjoyable blog post by Mario Livio, a renouned astrophysicist. He'd taken umbrage with William Blake's depiction "Newton", as well as with Keats, who lyriced:
“Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine --
Unweave a rainbow...”
Mr Livio goes on to say:
"In my humble opinion, the views of both Blake and Keats were grossly misguided. Scientists are not blind to the beauty of the world. When I see an image such as the one taken by the Hubble Space Telescope that was dubbed “The Rose” (Figure 3), I believe that I am as capable to appreciate its exquisitely complex elegance as any artist."
Sadly, this only demonstrates that Mr Livio doesn't understand Blake or Keats. Their assertion was not that individual scientists would suddenly be blinded to the beauty of the earth, as if a pair of mud-covered sunglasses would suddenly land on anyone practicing it.
Like Jung, the real fear these artists had was that science would become its own mythos, and a cultureof materialism and reductionism would develop as a result. Jung refered to this as the mindset of "nothing but". Scientists are well-placed to resist the urge to reduce reality to current knowledge, since they are the ones who best understand their own subject. But it's hard to argue that the culture that science has gone a long way to create is not affected by a widespread misunderstanding of its findings.
I've lost count of the number of clients who describe themselves as "nothing but" a collection of chemicals, and who are despondent at an empty, material universe. Their point of view is not scientific per se; in fact they have mistaken current knowledge for absolute knowledge, and are not conscious that science has always been, and always will be, progressive.
In this respect, I'm reminded me of my own science teacher, who told my 1980's high school class that it was "virtually" 100% certain that there was no alien life anywhere in the universe, beyond Earth. What he was really repeating was an opinion, based upon his own knowledge, perspective and emotion on that particular day. Because science is progressive by definition, that opinion or hypothesis was liable to change as more knowledge was gained. In order to preserve the psyches of 25 budding atheists in the classroom, he would have been better served by talking about the limits of scientific knowledge, the age-old problem of hubris, and the propensity for humans to sacrifice mystery for guesswork. Had he done so, he might have been less stuck in a moment of knowledge, and more open to what he had no idea about.
Therefore, in defence of Blake, I'd say he foresaw the dispiriting emergence of "scientism", a word yet to emerge in Blake's time, and eminently descriptive of the type of hubristic over-reach in the example above. Some things are mystery, some are knowledge. The latter has no claim on the former.
Descartes assertion that science should make us "masters and possessors of nature" would have been anathema to Blake, and he might have agreed with Karl Popper when he said:
“Science may be described as the art of systematic oversimplification.”
This doesn't mean that scientists cannot experience beauty or awe, or that science's ever-increasing knowledge is not a wonderful and useful thing, but it does hint at an uneasy relationship with that which is beyond us. With a pinch of modesty, we might admit that some things always will be. If not, scientific discovery would have to cease at a certain point in time, and mankind would resemble an omniscient god, which is course, not something we moderns ought to believe in.
The recent idea of "men's therapy" is based on the idea that men face different challenges, and respond to their environment in different ways from women. This idea certainly has some validity: men suffer different levels of anxiety and depression from women, for example. Men also experience different expectations in their lives.
Did you know? Suicide is over three times more likely in men than women in Ontario.
Rumours that men generally speak less than women are unfounded. According to the research, there is no appreciable difference. However, more important than quantity of communication is quality, and it is here that men traditionally struggle. Men often lack a healthy relationship with their emotions, including a lack of language to accurately describe or express them, and the means to understand the meaning of the feelings they have.
Some common issues affecting men:
In therapy, I find that most men want someone "normal" that they can speak to. Someone who won't judge, who can help them make sense of things. Someone who can speak their language, and help them get to solid ground.
The issues affecting men are actually not distinct from those affecting women, but the expression of those issues may be. Many men carry a cultural belief that they have to work everything out on their own; it often takes an act of courage to simply admit that reaching out can help.
This week, I came across an "ism" that surprised me. The word I found was "sanism" - the prejudice and discrimination against those who suffer from mental illness. Why hadn't I heard this word before, I thought? After all, I'm a psychotherapist, and the ill-treatment of those who are suffering in the sphere of mental health is hardly foreign territory.
The discovery of this word prompted me to wonder whether a kind of fatigue has set into society. Marginalized groups across the spectrum of human experience are competing hard to have their voices heard. Culture wars are setting social media on fire on a daily basis, and the news is filled with horrors. Perhaps, I thought, there's only so much space on our moral radars for isms, and "sanism" just hadn't quite made the cut, yet.
Disparate marginalized groups, though often sympathizing with the struggles they see elsewhere, spend most of their energy fighting their own particular corner. This siloed approach has made some notable gains over time, but is this fractured approach the most effective, or even the most realistic one?
Beneath the surface, the majority of these groups are attempting to overcome the same subterranean foe: othering.
Q: What is othering?
A: To view or treat another person or group in a reductive manner, and as intrinsically different from, and inferior to, the self (or group-self).
Othering makes use of projection to denigrate outsiders and scapegoats, thereby contributing to group cohesion and conformity. Othering is also closely associated with narcissism: a narcissistic group or individual will unconsciously regard others as things or uses that either contribute to narcissistic supply, or threaten the narcissist's hidden fragility.
As the word suggests, another defining characteristic of othering is an exaggeration and concentration upon difference, rather than what is held in common (our sameness). The psychological mechanism of othering includes a drastic departure from the reality that we are all, in truth, very similar. There is undoubtedly a very human irony present in the world when so many of the othered cannot themselves acknowledge the qualities they have in common. The result is a fractured resistance to a universal, deeply-rooted and ancient human trait.
We are tribal creatures. For thousands of years, human beings have depended upon living in groups in order to survive. When we exist successfully with other people, we gain a deep sense of belonging that is fundamental to human wellbeing. When we gain true acceptance, we don't have to compulsively seek attention. We can just be.
This kind of belonging is becoming rather scarce. Whether real or virtual, modern groups increasingly tend to reward a part or aspect of us that is useful, rather than our true selves. We anxiously don masks (personas) in order to fit into groups that demand such high levels of conformity that we sense our true selves are actually unwelcome.
Instead of belonging, in our modern world, we are witnessing an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety, depression and attention-seeking. When we seek help however, people are frequently asked to believe that there is a fault with them for the existence of these feelings, and are told to "take a pill" to mask, "correct" or numb themselves before being sent back into an unchanged environment.
There are glaring problems with this model. It determines that we are at fault for feeling ill at ease with the world we live in, and that only by correcting our biology can we hope to feel better. Moreover, the suggestion is that the environments we find ourselves in are benign. This is dangerous, profitable, and ill-considered thinking that ignores the role of environment in our wellbeing. When we're asked to believe that our anxiety, loneliness and depression have no meaning, other than an indication of our own faulty biology, we're in deep societal trouble!
There are a great many people these days, desperate for a sense of belonging, feverishly hunting, in one way or another, what can only truly be given. Precious time is given over to the chase for hits of admiration, where belonging is so elusive.
In this needy constuct, other people can quickly become things that either admire or disappoint us. In other words, they can become reduced to objects in a desperate game to remain afloat.
Current events in our culture or family lives can lead many of us to raise our hands in despair, and ask: "Why do (other!) people never learn?" Things can seem so bad, on so many fronts that we can feel overwhelmed and powerless. This article is intended to highlight a connection between prevailing problems we encounter in apparently unrelated areas of life: the problem of objectification.
Human beings are able to imbue objects and animals with human characteristics. This act is known as "anthropomorphism", and it happens all the time. Look no further than children animating stuffed toys, or Disney's success for examples of how we can do this. Without so much as a blink, we are also able to engage the far more dangerous opposite: we can perceive people as objects in a psychological act we refer to as "objectification".
For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to use a concept that Carl Jung borrowed from William James: the concept of "nothing but". When we describe, or view another person, or ourselves, as "nothing but x", we have objectified, because even if x is an idea, we have still reduced a subject to a static idea, from which they cannot easily escape. Whether we reduce people to an actual object, or to a concept doesn't matter. If we say that our neighbour is "nothing but" a snowflake, a banker, or a pain in the neck, we have in our mind objectified them.
"Nothing but" is a magic trick that affords us great power. We can, for example, stand on a hill, looking out over a forest, and reduce its value to a series of numbers or characters on a spreadsheet. It is nothing but timber, and profit. Similarly, we can look in the mirror, or across at our neighbours from a different perceived tribe, and pronounce ourselves or them, "nothing but". "Nothing but" is the feeling when we're shouted at in a road-rage incident, or when we try to phone a company, and are told our "call is very important, please hold", when we know that is not the case.
In the act of objectification, life-forms effectively become dead to us, objects with which we can do what we like. Subjects become objects because objects can be used by us, and can defined by their utility alone.
If we're not certain whether we're objectifying others, or vice versa, a good measuring stick is this question of use: to what extent are we using, or being used? This is not necessarily a binary issue, but we use objects, not people. Things we use don't require respect; they just need to fulfill a need for us consistently. So, a good boss will wish his employees well for their own sake, and an objectifying boss will merely want his employees to perform a function optimally, by whatever means necessary and without empathy. People, in his eyes are in essence, faulty robots. Similarly, lovers may decide to use one another to satisfy needs and desires, or in the example of unipolar objectification, an individual may nefariously try to utilize another for his, or her own ends. By constrast, as two subjects, priority is given to of the wellbeing of the other person, each of whom demands, and receives, respect.
The correlation between objectification and utility is also high in the case of the scapegoat; another instance in which a subject becomes an object in our minds. The scapegoat, above all, is useful, since they provide a cowardly route for the projection of in-group evils onto a vulnerable other. By doing so, the in-group gains both a sense of cohesion (because it can define itself as all-good) and a sense of power, because it has overcome ambiguity, albeit through an act of magical thinking. The scapegoat is labelled and conjured into an object, which may be treated any way we like, since objects are not like us. Objects rather, are things we use, and scapegoats are useful to us in the most Machiavellian way. Sadly, this occurrence is common to a great many groups, including families. In the act of scapegoating, we turn subjects into objects without a moment's thought.
To fully accept that another, valid subjectivity exists requires the abilitiy and will to give psychological space and time to that subject. One has to listen, without interrupting, and to engage with curiosity and empathy. On a crowded street, this is not possible, nor desirable; to do so might be overwhelming. We are, however, able to accept, even in large groups, that other people are in large part a mystery to us. When we objectify, we remove our respect for the mystery of another subject, and put a label, number, or use in its place.
Human beings are so susceptible to objectifying others that we need instruments of culture to rein in our worst impulses. Instutitions of the law are imperfect, but punish and prevent such things as violence and child neglect, and therefore often dissuade objectification. We are reminded by the law to rein in anger, to avoid drunk-driving, and not to defraud others. One might argue that the law is meant to remind us to respect one another as subjects. Major insitutions, like the United Nations are meant to dissuade one nation or ethnicity from treating another like a thing to be manipulated or abused at will.
Concurrently, we experience through culture, things that persuade us to objectify. Instruments of self-interest are the most obvious examples. Commerce itself is an extension, in which nature and people can easily become objects to be exploited, manipulated or made use of. People can become subservient to the balance sheet in slavery, and all manner of other abuses of the human "resource". Mathematics often enables this process since it is an abstraction, that pretend to represent the real world, but actually only represents certain, chosen aspects of it. As such, it provides a stepping stone towards the "nothing but" that denies the richness of subjective experience. A series of numbers can sum up neither a forest nor a human individual.
Kant, in Lectures on Ethics, discussed how sex in his opinion, is inherently objectifying, and therefore inherently problematic. Marriage, he thought, was the only institution that could save us from peril, because only there could our subjectivity be reliably returned to us. Carl Jung approached the problem of objectification too, decrying rational materialism that could result in a psyche being treated as mere "chemical secretions of the brain". These writers were concerned that humanity could be reduced in a systematic fashion. Through objectification we can become subservient to, or equivalent in perception to, numbers written on pieces of paper, to algorithms, to use or base materials.
I sometimes think of psychotherapy as a space designed for subjectification:
a safe place, where the objectified self that so many of us carry can be expressed, and integrated through exploratory, non-judgmental conversation. When this happens, we can move from meaninglessness, anxiety, panic and low self-esteem, to a sense of meaning, calm, dignity and self-respect. Therapy is also a place where we learn our blindspots; when we turn tables without noticing, and objectify the other.
As a therapist, is common to meet with people who, when children, knew neglect, or who felt like they were nothing but a flat character in a more powerful person's story. Growing up in the shadow of narcissistic parenting means growing up as an object, and not receiving the respect that a growing human being requires to develop a healthy psyche.
Sadly, there are people, systems and institutions that objectify others routinely, or in a heartbeat treat others according to how useful they perceive them to be. Objectification can be handed down, generation to generation, creating cycles of destruction. But in the course of a life, surrounding oneself with objects is the very definition of loneliness, and is fraught with disrespect to oneself and others. It is hard to imagine a more devastating aspect of humanity than our predeliction for treating subjects as objects.
When dealing with the magnitude of problems that affect us as individuals, it is sometimes helpful to leave our silos. When we do so, we can see that the problem of objectification, which can feel so personal, has left a trail of destruction elsewhere, in a terribly broad swathe of human life. Our fight to contain the impulse to objectify is actually a common one, shared between disparate and opposing groups. The brighter the light that is shone upon this aspect of our psychology, the greater the chance we have of reining it in. Through a variety of means, we can then reduce its destructive potential, and promote what really matters: nature, and human being.
By : Tom Barwell
Psychotherapist, working in private practice in the Annex, Toronto.