An individual’s sense of self, their sense of identity, is often invaluable to their psychological wellbeing. Yet we find it all too easy to define ourselves in terms of mutable and impermanent things, such as our professional, financial, or interpersonal success. Likewise, we take our mistakes, failures, or rejections to heart, often viewing them as a reflection of our identity, our true self, or as indication of an inherent weakness, problem, superiority or innate talent. By identifying ourselves with these (and other) entities, we perform acts of misidentification. In this communication I aim to demonstrate that misidentification of the self is a cause of, or explains, a number of situations involving psychological suffering. The act of misidentification is based on false perceptions, a lack of psychological awareness, and involves harmful attachment and dependence. I explore the Buddhist perspective on identity and attachment as a psychological method to alleviating suffering. I argue that we must not identify with anything internal or external to ourselves, i.e., to no thing that is not our self. Further, I provide real-world scenarios in which this harmful identification may occur in order to demonstrate the value of these perspectives as tools to prevent suffering. In writing this paper, the intent was not to advocate Buddhist philosophy per se, but rather to explain how ideas found in Buddhism can help us understand our psychology and offer an avenue to alleviate unnecessary suffering resulting from ignorance, harmful dependence, and a mismatch between reality and falsity, rationality and irrationality.
You are not what you do, what you say, see, hear, or think. You are not this particular achievement, or that particular mistake. You are not your profession, your academic success, your family, your possessions, your thoughts, nor your country. Nor are you what we typically call our ego. Your identity as a human being does not rest In is not determined by, nor is it identical to any of these things. Yet we find it all too easy to define ourselves in terms of our professional, financial, or interpersonal success.0 Likewise, we take our mistakes, failures, or rejections to heart, often viewing them as a reflection of our identity, of our true self, or as indication of an inherent weakness, problem, superiority or innate talent. "In North American culture…people commonly assume that some people have more worth or value than others, and that their worth or value as a person depends on what they are or do (Crocker et al. 2004: 4)." Not only is this mindset harmful, but it reflects a very materialistic view of the human being, making self-worth or self-esteem “contingent on satisfying some standards of worth or value (Crocker et al. 2004: 4)”. We identify our self-worth with some kind of success, and thus to things that are external to and not identical with our humanity. It need not be our sense of self-worth we identify with other entities0, but may be our happiness, our sense of meaning in life, or our entire conception of our identity (our sense of self).
We may take disappointment not as a reason for self-deprecation or pity, but as a challenge.0 We may instead look at a mistake or wrong done as an opportunity to learn and to better ourselves. By contrast, as is often the case, we may have the opposite response, such as depression or another harmful psychological reaction. In the extreme situation we may internalize life events (or the other entities mentioned above) to the point where our sense of self and hope for the future diminishes to such a point that we take our own lives. Ultimately, psychological exploration is one key to understanding our reactions.0
In what follows, I hope to demonstrate the impact our sense of self (what or who we think we are as human beings) has on psychological suffering and its prevention0. I suggest that misidentification—identifying ourselves with that which is not ourselves—explains some situations in which we experience psychological suffering. Viewed from a psychological perspective, ideas on attachment and suffering, as described by Buddhism, can be useful in understanding and preventing suffering in those situations. My aim is not to promote a Buddhist way of life, nor a Buddhist metaphysical view of the self, but simply to demonstrate that these ideas, if applied correctly and rationally, have psychological benefits for the human being.
My concern is with those situations where we attach ourselves to things, people, emotions, thoughts, or experiences in such a way (an irrational way) that leads to psychological suffering and harm (and very possibly physical harm as a consequence).0 We understand the difference between (A) experiencing emotions and forming a healthy bond (such as the important attachment relationships during infancy and later in life) and (B) letting emotions control you, irrationally influencing your thoughts and behaviors to such an extent that a harmful pattern0 of thinking or behaving emerges, as well as an unhealthy psychological dependence. It is (B) that often happens when we experience some forms of psychological suffering. This communication, then, is in the hope of contributing to the alleviation and prevention of this kind of suffering.
I often use the terms ‘irrational attachment’ or ‘harmful attachment’ to reflect (B), but may simply use ‘attachment’. When I speak of ‘attachment’, ‘detachment’, or ‘non-attachment’ (‘rational non-attachment’ is a better term), I do not mean any kind of unemotional outlook toward other human beings, life events, or life in general, nor do I mean indifference or detachment from reality. (A) is a healthy part of life, but we are to recognize emotions that are positive, those that are corrosive and negative, and act accordingly with reason.0 We are to recognize when an emotion, thought, or behavior is a result of irrationality, and correct it by willfully choosing the rational course of action. When I speak of identity, I do not mean cultural identity per se, but of the self, or nature of the human being. Further, I use phrases with ‘self’, and ‘identity’ interchangeably.
THE BUDDHIST PSYCHOLOGICAL METHOD
Buddhist philosophy can be seen as a method (Giacobbe 2005) to eliminating (some forms of) psychological suffering. According to Buddhism, the cause of suffering is attachment, and attachment is caused by ignorance of a particular aspect of reality, namely that reality is impermanent and constantly changing. “Ignorance of reality produces attachment because we take that which is impermanent as being permanent (Giacobee 2005: 36)”.
Dr. Giulio Cesare Giacobbe, a psychotherapist and instructor of oriental psychology from the University of Genoa, explains Buddhist views from a psychological perspective. He discusses identity in terms of the ego, defining the latter as “the image the human being has of himself”. The ego is one’s image or perceptionof themselves, and when it is a wrong representation0 of the self, suffering becomes not just a possibility, but an inevitability.0 According to this psychological perspective, the normal structure of human personality is a neurotic structure (Giacobbe 2005: 42). I interpret “normal” as meaning that this structure forms in the average, or majority, of human beings, but is neither necessary, nor present at birth. Some psychological suffering we experience comes about because a neurotic mental structure, what we may call psychological neuroses, isproduced in us. This means that our natural mental structure is susceptible to neurotic development under certain conditions0, specifically when (1) a neurotic structure is already present at some point during the course of life and (2) when (some or all of) the proper conditions affording psychological, physical, emotional, and spiritual progress and positive development are not present, or (3) when harmful or negative conditions or influences are present.
A neurotic mind is one that tends to identify with entities in the outside world (Giacobbe 2005: 44). The mental suffering that we experience comes about because the neurotic mental structure seeks to expand the ego in an abnormal way (Giacobbe 2005: 42), expanding it beyond our body. I interpret “abnormal” as meaning irrational, false, and harmful. In order to prevent and solve psychological suffering we must break down the neurotic structure in our minds. With regard to the situations I consider, this demolition involves (a) psychological exploration or council (see footnote 4), (b) understanding the nature of the human being, and (c) becoming aware that you are not that which you may find yourself clinging to or identifying your-self (what or who you think you are) with.
According to Buddhism, breaking down this harmful mental entity is achieved by following The Eightfold Path0, composed of eight steps, the first two of which are considered here. They are: Right Knowledge—awareness of the impermanence of reality (constant change)—which affords non-attachment within oneself; and Right Thought, eliminating negative thought (which leads to suffering0), and producing positive (but rational) thoughts, thought processes, and thought patterns in their stead. I suggest we understand this as realizing the potential of the human mind to progress, be creative, and develop positively, and in so doing manifest morality and reason.0 The relevant Buddhist views considered here can be summarized as follows.
(P1) Reality is constantly changing and impermanent.
(P2) We often become attached to things beyond0 ourselves, things that are subject to change.
(P3) Attachment is caused by ignorance of the impermanence of reality (P1).
(P4) The cause of (psychological) suffering is attachment.
(P5) By recognizing P1 - P3 and committing ourselves to non-attachment we can end and prevent
Implicit in P1 - P5 is that psychological suffering exists. Acts of misidentification occur in P2. If we understand (irrational) attachment from a psychological perspective we discover how it can lead to suffering. In attaching to any number of entities, one is performing acts of misidentification: identifying some part of our self, if not our entire identity as humans, with the object(s) of our attachment (OOA). This phenomena is often subtle, having grown roots in the subconscious, may permeate our lives, and is often imperceptible without the aid of introspective effort. The suffering produced, however, is unnecessary and always detrimental to our psychological wellbeing. For example, attachment to the point of emotional and psychological dependence is, needless to say, harmful. It leaves the person in a volatile psychological and emotional state that leads to irrational choices and habits of thinking. For example, it is one thing to feel love and affection for a person, and desire to be in their company, but it is quite another to be so emotionally attached to them that one's autonomy, will, and rationality are compromised as a result. If we allow our mental states to be dependent on this or that person (object, or mental entity), then it is an indication of a lack of maturity, harmful dependence and attachment. If we acknowledge that the things we care for are not necessarily permanent (and that there is nothing necessarily wrong with that), and that loss is possible, then we are better able to face loss and change.
THE “LET IT GO” ARGUMENT
In order to reflect the psychology involved I modify P1 to P5 in the following way. In becoming attached (P2) we are forming a connection between our sense of self and some other entity. Based on Buddhist views we do this because we are ignorant of P10, but it is more than that.0 We believe there exists a connection0 between OOA and our identity (perhaps because the OOA brings us happiness or pride), and so we base our identity (or some part of it) on that object. In doing so, we form a psychological connection between our self and that OOA. AgaIn we can call the entire process misidentification of the self. In this way, the false belief in the existence of a connection between our identity and other entities leads to the production of that very connection. Since the OOA is mutable (P1), when it changes or perishes we feel as though we, too, have changed or suffered a loss. This produces psychological suffering (P4). To alleviate and prevent suffering, then, we must recognize and accept (a) P1, and more importantly (b), that our identity as human beings does not rest in the objects we irrationally attach to. To end the suffering we must break the connection that was produced in the act of misidentification. We now have the following:
(P1) Reality (and the objects/entities within it) is (are) constantly changing and impermanent.0
(P2) We often become attached to things (the OOA) that are not our selves0, things subject to change.
This involves misidentification of the self.
(P3) We become attached to the OOA because we falsely believe the OOA somehow determines (or is
connected to) our self, or our core as human beings.
(P4) An explanation, if not a cause, for some kinds of psychological suffering is attachment and
misidentification of the self. (We engage in acts of misidentification that leads to suffering.)
(P5) By recognizing P1 through P4 and committing ourselves to rational non-attachment we can end and prevent (some instances of) psychological suffering.
In recognizing and not believing in the reality of a link between you and the OOA (a person, a possession, a social role, a thought, an experience, etc.), you can alleviate, if not avoid, suffering in some of life’s events. Let us consider P1 through P5 with respect to daily life.
THE BUDDHIST VIEWS IN DAILY LIFE: P1 – P5
P1—the impermanence of reality0—is apparent in all aspects of our lives from social to scientific reality. We need only look to our common experiences (as well as scientific knowledge): we gain and lose jobs, friends, loved ones, interests, thoughts, emotions; social groups (including nation states) are formed and disbanded; the physical world is constantly in flux and interacting from the subatomic to the macroscopic, at all intermediate levels of granularity; we lose our looks, our health fluctuates, and so on and so forth.0 In other words, social and environmental situations change, and our bodies, thoughts, and emotions change. Yet we can recognize a notion of a unity, or whole, in a changing reality, whether we consider the universe in its entirety or particular processes characterized by specific unfolding changes.0
One area of life where attachment (P2) comes easily is in our interpersonal relationships. How easy is it to become emotionally attached to a love-interest, and how often do we let that irrational attachment develop into dependency, overriding our rational faculties. As a result of insecurities and other psychological considerations we may change our behavior and make concessions or sacrifices (when it is not warranted or against our better judgement) just to attain (or keep) that person in our lives. Here, I am not referring to healthy compromises typical of a love-relationship. Regardless of the object of desire—a particular love interest, or the idea of love—dependence on the OOA leads to psychological suffering. Similarly, we become attached to a high-paying job (or to the salary), or a social role, misidentifying our self with the job or role. Are you a pianist or do you play the role of one? If you lose the use of your hands after a lifetime of dedication, will you cease to be a human being? At that point, do you know what it is about the human being that remains? Similarly, will you remain in a permanent emotional funk after having identified your self with the role or with your abilities to play? Although some situations are more severe than others and involve intricate psychological conditions0, all the OOA are of fleeting and mutable entities that bear no connection to the essence of the individual human being. Misidentifying ourselves with any of these entities demonstrates that we are likely ignorant of (1) what the human being is, (2) of the workings of our psychology, and (3) of the every-day socio-political forces that have an effect on our psyche, forces such as: (psychologically) manipulative ideology and imagery expressed via the media, irrational and harmful interpersonal dynamics found in our immediate social environments (from our parents, extended family, peers, strangers, etc.), mindless and vacuous “art” forms, artifacts, poor or counterproductive pedagogy, and so on. In short, if we are not conscious of these influences, they can limit the creative power, the creative reason of the mind, keeping it in a lower state of being, distracted from truth and the pressing and vital issues of the individual human being (yourself) and humanity as a whole. In this state, one is governed by irrationality often stuck in emotional reactions, rather than rational actions.
We attach ourselves to internal (mental, psychological) as well as external (mind-independent/mind-external) entities. The former includes particular thoughts, emotions, memories, beliefs, and so forth. The latter includes people, possessions, life events, observations, behaviors or actions, etc. If the neurotic structure that forms produces a tendency or disposition in us to become attached to entities not identical to our selves0, then that disposition is also towards having the false belief that we need this or that for our identity (or our happiness, self-esteem, etc.) to be complete in some way.
You form a dependency by identifying either (a) your entire self, or (b) a part of your self you hold to be an individuating, central, essential or core aspect of your being. In becoming attached to, or dependent on, something, we do not want to lose it. We believe we need it: it makes us happy, or so we think during those irrational cases of harmful attachment0. We want not only to maintaIn but to reproduce and perpetuate that feeling. In a neurotic state, we can end up behaving in emotionally or physically harmful ways to maintain that feeling. In other situations, we may act to avoid a feeling. From the perspective of the neurotic structure that forms in our psyche, the OOA is viewed as a positive entity that should be sought (even if it is, in reality, harmful to us0). Assuming this takes place subconsciously, it explains why we may consciously believe, think or speak as though the OOA is beneficial. Substance abuse, and clinging to a loveless marriage out of loneliness are examples.0 This involves a failure to recognize, or rationally act on, P3, as well as poor knowledge of personal psychological history.
The suffering caused by attachment (P4) is often the result of internalizing the loss or change of that which an individual is attached to. When we lose the OOA, or it changes in a way that displeases us, we suffer because with that loss is also a diminution of our, say, happiness. We believe that loss or change reflects or represents our self in some way. It is a loss of some part of our selves. By not becoming irrationally attached, and therefore by not forming a dependency, we will not feel a corresponding loss or change in our self when the OOA perishes0. There is no corresponding loss because we have not (sub)consciously made a correspondence between us and the OOA. If you make your happiness dependent on a fluctuating object, then your happiness will fluctuate with it. We do this more often than we are aware of, and given our environments and what we are exposed to (both within the mind and outside of it) it is all too easy to do this.
We can conceptualize what happens in the mind as the (sub)conscious creation of a dependence relation between us (our self, or some “part of” us, such as our happiness) and the OOA. More specifically, it seems to be a one-sided dependence relation, meaning: A is one-sidedly dependent on B if and only if A is dependent upon B but B is independent of A (Ingvar 2004). Modifying this definition to account for the psychological context, the relation can be described as a fiatone-sided psychological dependence relation. It is fiat because we are creating the relation ourselves and it is not a naturally occurring relation. This means that A (say, yourself) is psychologically dependent on B (any of the previously mentioned OOA) but B is, in reality, independent of A. “B is independent of A” means B has no affect on A other than what A (sub)consciously allows it to. When B changes you change with it, for better or for worse, but only because your neurotic mind has formed this relation, and only because you are falsely convinced about the truth or reality of link between you and the OOA. We can, however, prevent the process leading to psychological suffering by breaking the link.
We avoid misidentification of the self through an act of will, by consciously understanding and accepting that: (a) those things we tend to cling to are not necessarily constant0, and that (b) our identity does not rest in those OOA, we can better cope with change In and loss of, that which have attached to (P5). In understanding that what we cling to, what we may believe defines us, is not actually the essence of us as human beings, we are one step closer to understanding the human being. That is, by understanding what we are not, we may come closer to understanding what and who we are. In the next section, I elaborate on what has been said, and provide real-world scenarios explained in terms of misidentification.
EXPANDING THE VIEWS
We harmfully identify ourselves with a myriad of entities past, present, and future from material possessions to social roles and social ideology to behaviors or experiences to our own thoughts and emotions.
Some people stake their self-worth on being beautiful or thIn others on being morally virtuous, others on accumulating wealth or professional success, and so on (Crocker et al 2004: 4).
Although being morally virtuous is a virtue necessarily worth pursuing, it must be done so rationally. If you develop an inflated ego, or an irrationally judgmental attitude, because you have lived a morally flawless life, that is counter to moral virtue.0 Similarly, while morality is essential to the human condition, if you break a moral principle, then guilt should not be accompanied by consistent and irrational self-deprecation and attachment to that act. This, too, is misidentification. As human beings we are capable of willing how we think and act, and reason dictates an aspiration to improve our moral character in spite of (im)moral acts, failures, or successes.0
Misidentification, or irrational attachment, is “the root cause of neurosis and therefore human suffering. It is a neurotic process, in so far as it is a process of estrangement from reality”0 and we identify “with an ever increasing, even more complex series of mental symbols based on values that are social or cultural rather than natural (Giacobbe 2005: 43)”. The neurotic mental structure seeks to expand our image of ourselves. The way it does this is by latching onto things that are not ourselves. We have a sense of stability when all is well, but when we lose that which we identify with we suffer, often tremendously.
The origin of all psychological problems, the origin of the neurotic mind is the tendency to identify ourselves with desires and conflicts connected with the outside world. And the first question to be asked is whether these conflicts really exist in the outside world or if they are in fact inner conflicts (Giacobbe 2005: 44).
Regardless of whether there exists (a) an actual external conflict, (b) the perception (oftentimes imaginary0) of an external conflict, or (c) an actual internal conflict, the act of misidentification, itself, has a detrimental influence on our minds. If a conflict exists within the mind or outside of the mind, there is no reason to identify or cling oneself with it such that our psychological well-being becomes dependent on the conflict itself or its outcome.0 What good does it do to place ourselves in such a position with that conflict? Rather, becoming aware of the act of misidentification and the conflicts, themselves, is imperative in order to see the effects they have on our inner life and on our behavior so that we may find a rational, and thus healthy, solution.0 It will do nothing but harm to misidentify oneself with any conflict or object, whether facing death or a disturbing thought. Consider the following passages on the internal world, the contents (thoughts, emotions, etc.) of which are particularly impermanent and under constant flux.
I know that your attention is imprisoned in the imaginary world of your thought…make the effort to look inside yourselves. Concentrate your attention on your thought, observe how it is born, grows and dies, how impermanent it is and how its fantasies are not real. …by making the effort to look inside yourselves, you will free yourselves from the fantasies of your thought0. Then you will be able to turn your attention to the reality that surrounds you (Giacobbe 2005: 63).
The attribution of reality to the objects of our mind is the technical cause of our mental suffering (Giacobbe 2005: 111).
The observation of our thought does in fact require an effort because our attention is usually magnetized by our thoughts to such an extent that we become our thoughts. When a thought crosses our consciousness (for example: ‘I am a failure’), we assume that thought is real and we become that thought. That is why we suffer. Our Ego identifies with our thoughts (Giacobbe 2005: 64).
The second quote is particularly useful. If we become excessively preoccupied, worried, or fearful over something that may or may not occur, for example, or over something that is simply not true (not a reality), and we misidentify with it, then we are essentially believing in the existence of that entity over and above the existence of the thought. Even if the entity in question is real, that still does not mean that the entity is us. How easy is it to become consumed by a fear or a suspicion, and how often do we act on fears or irrational thoughts or emotions. If we consciously or subconsciously identify ourselves with one or more thoughts, the key to remedying the situation, according to the psychological method, is in commitment to rationalnon-attachment. This commitment involves a personal understanding that you are