Notes on self-love and self-confirmation

 

In a sense, self-love, or self-regard, is the foundation of the self. La Rochefoucauld was right about that, though he expressed the insight in unnecessarily negative and cynical ways. In wanting recognition or self-confirmation, which is the self’s essential urge, what you want is objective confirmation of your implicit self-love. This achievement, by definition, has to be mediated by the other, first and foremost by the abstract otherness in your consciousness. Thus, you yourself, “your” (self-)consciousness, is the fundamental mediator of the fulfillment of your own urge to “prove” your self-love (to test it and confirm its truth). You undertake this self-imposed project through self-activity, in every moment of the day. If your self-activity is “successful” (as judged by you, hence by the otherness in your consciousness), your self-love continues or increases (at least momentarily)—though quite possibly only on a half-conscious level, because ordinarily all this stuff is merely implicit. Generally speaking, your constant self-activity is more or less constantly effective to some degree; you achieve your purposes, you act on and in the world, you communicate with other selves, and your reality and effectiveness are proven. To the extent that all this is stable, your self-love is stable.

 

Because people instantiate the otherness in your mind, your self-otherness, their reactions to you condition your reactions to yourself. What’s interesting is that certain people’s reactions matter more to you than others’. That is, these people are relatively “significant” others to you. What determines whether someone is such a “significant other” (not necessarily in the romantic sense)? There are a few obvious causes, such as whether he or she has played or plays an important role in your life, or whether you know each other well. In this case, the time you’ve spent together has caused you to internalize him to some degree, such that your “idea” of him is closely associated with the Other in your mind. (For instance, you might imagine what he would think of some act you’re contemplating, as you consider what you’re about to do from the perspective of an other watching you.)

 

More interesting is the question of what determines whether you respect someone. This question is made more difficult by the fact that there are different kinds of respect, for instance the kind that you might spontaneously, half-consciously feel and act on when in the presence of a charismatic person (someone with a “strong presence”), as opposed to the more reflective kind that is a product of your contemplating his virtues and coming to the conclusion that he is admirable. What I find the most psychologically intriguing is the first kind, or more generally the kind that involves your attributing value to someone such that you want to impress him and thereby bolster your own self-regard. What this “bolstering” means, again, is that you more deeply sense your own reality, the truth and reality of your self-regard. Your hitherto “imaginary” self-love has become, to some extent, “objective,” confirmed through the other’s recognition; the implicit divide between the world and your self has thereby, at least momentarily, been partially overcome. You are more a part of the world (in projecting yourself into it) and the world is more a part of you (in its recognizing you, your self-love).

 

So, one way to achieve this goal is to secure the approval of someone with a strong presence. People tend to ignore the person with a “weak” personality and try to get the attention of him with a “strong” personality. For example, last night I was playing Yahtzee with some acquaintances and was struck by the way they treated their friend Bill. He isn’t particularly good-looking and doesn’t have a confident “aura”; he’s merely friendly, kind, self-effacing, intelligent, and quiet but interested in people. So the others mostly ignored him while paying attention to his brother Jim, who is more confident and attractive, with a larger body. Jim seemed rather boring and didn’t impress me much, but whatever inane comment he made elicited appreciative remarks from the others. So I was left being the only one who showed interest in Bill, which I did mainly because I didn’t want him to feel ignored. Incidentally, this sort of behavior, this cruelty and insensitivity, is very common in group situations; it has always appalled me.

 

The question, then, is what does it mean to have a strong presence? What does it mean to have charisma (even a small amount)? Such qualities as confidence, intelligence, and wittiness often determine it; things like having a fairly large or muscular body (if you’re a man) or being physically attractive can be important. I’ve noticed that people who project a slight aloofness can have a strong presence, and having a loud voice of course helps. But really the phenomenon is mysterious. The most that can be said is that a charismatic person projects self-reality or self-presence; in fact, he is implicitly seen as having “more of a self” than the uncharismatic person. He appears to have a stronger sense of self, which is to say he has a “stronger presence,” i.e., his self is more present. The (sense of) self of a socially awkward nerd is unconsciously perceived as relatively absent, and so people don’t care much what he thinks of them. They ignore him, since he doesn’t project self-certainty. And why is that quality so important? Because if it's lacking what that really means is that the self, or its self-love, is not confirmed; it doesn’t seem “real” in the way that the selfhood of a charismatic person like, say, Bill Clinton does. Whatever you think of Clinton—I despise him—he does have charisma: from testimonies I’ve read, when you’re in his presence you have an impression of an overwhelmingly real self, a “heavy” presence, from which you strongly desire recognition. You want him to notice you, etc. Even if consciously you dislike him, unconsciously, it seems, you perceive his implicit self-regard as “justified” or “confirmed” or “objectively true,” a part of reality in some sense. It imposes itself on you. Since what you always want—implicitly—is to prove the truth and reality of your own self-love, naturally you’ll seek to achieve this by getting recognition from a self or selves you see as particularly real, i.e. confirmed, “effective,” “self-certain,” etc.

 

Charisma isn’t everything, though. The broader point is that Hegel was right that people desire recognition only from people they recognize, i.e., whose value or reality or “effectivity” they recognize. This explains the sort of insensitive behavior I mentioned above: in not recognizing someone’s reality or value, you don’t care if he recognizes yours. So you’re free to treat him badly. Of course, things are rarely this extreme: people recognize almost everyone’s reality and value to some extent, just insofar as everyone (except vegetative cases like Terri Schiavo) is a person with a self. And so people’s default mode of behavior is at least civility.

 

All this, to repeat, can be expressed in the language of “internalization.” I haven’t internalized Bill Clinton in any meaningful sense (quite the contrary!), so, despite his charisma, I doubt I’d care very much what he thought of me if we met. I have, however—as you know—internalized Noam Chomsky to a fairly high degree, which is to say he is closely associated with the general other(ness) in my mind. The “idea” I’ve formed of him is a kind of standard of value, and, together with my internalizations of many other people I know and of certain social standards, etc., it implicitly accompanies me as the Other in relation to which I define myself and measure myself. Half-consciously I seek the approval of all these others in my mind, these “real” others out there (whom I have internalized and so made, in a sense, “abstract”), by participating in whose reality I become real myself. Through their recognition, whether explicit or implicit, I partially overcome their otherness and my self-otherness, thereby coinciding with myself and the world to a relatively high degree (at least momentarily). That is, I sense the reality and justifiability of my self-regard.

 

Note, however, that this essential project of the self, taken to its logical conclusion of objective proof of the self’s value, is unfulfillable. For the self can never get fully objective proof, because it itself mediates its awareness of the other’s supposed recognition of the self’s value. The self would have to coincide with the other, fuse with it, in order to get truly objective self-proof. But that’s absurd. Hence, the self is always striving for more proof; it is restless, unsatisfied, undertaking self-expressive projects again and again. (Of course there are other reasons for that behavior too, psychological and biological reasons. Everything about the self can be interpreted in multiple ways.)

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright