I’m intrigued by the parallels among the Bible story of the Israelites turning away from the true God and fashioning a false idol in the form of a golden calf; George Gurdjieff’s statements about the personality compensating for our essence; Karen Horney’s description of an idealized self image substituting for the real self; and the Enneagram showing how this replacement plays out in nine personality styles.
After wandering around in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites were feeling a little hopeless that Yahweh was ever going to get them out of the desert and into the promised land (something like Chicagoans waiting for the Cubs to lead them to a pennant.) So they decided to turn away from their true God and fashion a false idol in the form of a golden calf. It’s not clear if this golden idol wore White Sox. Hopefully their idol would lead them to security and happiness since Yahweh didn’t seem up to the task.
It is the nature of idols to promise everything and produce little and they don’t do this for nothing (something like investment advisors.) To get results from idols you have to promise to do what they tell you. You must follow their advice otherwise everything you are afraid of will happen to you. Idols are not above threats.
In addition you have to bring them sacrifices – some flowers, fruits, animals, your first-born child – whatever is important to you. But these are minor offerings compared to the safety and glory idols promise.
Bringing this socio-cultural story closer to the psyche, George Gurdjieff, the Armenian teacher of esoteric wisdom, speaks about the personality or false self compensating or substituting for our essence or true self. If we abandon and lose faith in our real self, then we need to fashion a false self to mimic and stand in for the real deal.
Karen Horney, a neo-psychoanalyst, writes about the idealized self image replacing the real self. She believed each individual is born with a healthy real self. By aligning ourselves with our real self, we will realize our full potential and live in harmony with other people (the humanist version of the promised land.)
When children are loved unconditionally for themselves and when they have their biological, emotional, and social needs satisfied, they remain connected to their real selves for they have no reason to be other than who they are.
On the other hand, when children’s needs are frustrated and unmet by their caretakers’ indifference, rejection, or hostility (what Horney labels “basic evil”), they then develop a view of themselves as lowly and despicable. There must be something wrong with them to deserve such treatment and deprivation. So they fashion an idealized self to compensate for and escape from their real self which has morphed into their despised self. A conflict then develops between the real and idealized self which has become crystallized into an idealized self image.
Our idealized self-image is how we think of ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, and how we want others to think of us. In the Enneagram system, the nine self-images have been labeled “prides”. We are proud of being right, loving, successful, deeply feeling, insightful, loyal, upbeat, powerful, and easy going. But as Horney notes there is a certain arrogance involved in that we appropriate to ourselves more than actually may be there. When our prides are not noticed, minimized, or somehow stepped on, we overreact with anger, guilt, embarrassment, or other negative feelings.
From the Enneagram perspective, personality is an exaggeration of our authentic personal qualities. Similarly Horney observed that the idealized image is based partially on the person’s genuine self.
Personality masquerades as our essential self and tricks us into identifying with and believing that an inflated dimension of our self is our whole self. We collaborate in this deception as a way of defending our true self from anxiety-provoking vulnerabilities and as a way of compensating for certain imagined shortfalls in our real self.
Our personality retains intimations of our real self and we can follow it back to our authentic self if we follow our developmental trail back the way we came. This will return us to the path of self actualization. Or we can follow our personality further into its idealized self-image and this will lead us down the road to self-image actualization where only a distorted part of us will be fulfilled.
From the Enneagram perspective, the idols of our personality, manifested in our idealized self image, beckon us to security and happiness. But to reach their promised land, we must pledge our unwavering devotion and fealty to them. And should we disobey them and take another route, they warn us that what we are most afraid of will surely come about. Here we find our should’s and idealizations.
On the other hand, our essence or genuine self invites us to a deeper security and well-being. It is a gentle calling, doesn’t use threats, is always there, but is not as easily noticed. We are guided along this path by our values and ideals.
So what does each type value and really want? What is their head- heart- gut’s deepest desire? What are they enlivened by? And, opposed to their desire, what do they most dread? What is each type particularly vulnerable to and afraid of? It is these fears that their idols promise to protect them from. The irony is they are sheltered from what they fear, but they don’t get what they really want. Tragically their defensive strategies prevent them from finding what they need. The good news about living in a castle surrounded by a mote, alligators, and barbed wire is you are safe. The bad news is, since you are so cut off, you eventually die of boredom or starvation.