27 August 2018 at 7:30 am
Inspired by Hollywood rom-com Feeling Pretty, psychologist Adam Blanch gets to grips with the critical mind, and the need for the ego and the id to work together.
“Dear Adam, I’ve just watched Feeling Pretty and was taken aback by how much the main character’s experience reflected my own. I’m a proud, successful, confident woman, but I’ve battled with my weight my whole life and the minute I look in the mirror I collapse into self-loathing and often end up binge eating. Even when I’ve tortured myself to lose weight with crazy diets, my constantly critical mind never allows me to be good enough, no matter how much I accomplish or how much I am loved. I know it’s irrational, but it just keeps going. How can I stop this?” – Anon
Feeling Pretty made me cry, but happy endings do that. I love redemption and reconciliation stories where the characters experience a coming home to love. Hopefully we can create one together.
I know how you feel, and it sucks. I suffered under the burden of a viciously critical mind and disordered eating for decades, as do so many of my clients. Teaching people how to overcome the critical mind is one of my favourite things to do, because it makes such a huge difference in their life. However, the answer is not always what people expect it to be.
Let’s start with understanding the problem. There are three parts – the critical mind, the eating behaviours and the inability to ever feel “good enough”. Sigmund Freud called the last phenomenon a “neurosis”, which means an “unsatisfiable desire”. No matter how much it is fed it is never satiated, which is also reflected in the eating behaviour. Neuroses take a lot of forms in human psychology, including the narcissistic need for recognition and praise, the dependent need for constant reassurance, perfectionist demands for ever-increasing achievements and the need for control and power to prevent criticism and rejection.
All of these “defence mechanisms” are trying to meet our need for love and belonging, but no matter how much external validation or success we attain, or how good we look, the internal experience of rejection is so profound that it’s like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom. It only ever feels full for a minute or two. We are satisfied just long enough to continue believing that we can get our bucket filled by others, or by our next goal, but never long enough to actually feel OK. In the addiction world this is called “chasing the dragon”, constantly seeking that moment of feeling temporarily better.
This is because of the critical mind. Many clients have asked me why we would have such a thing, why would nature equip us with a part of our brain that rejects, suppresses and abuses us? Believe it or not, there is a good reason for this. What we call the critical mind Freud called “the Ego”, or at least it is part of the ego. In more modern terms we understand this to be one of the functions of the left hemisphere of our brain, but frankly, Freud’s conception is more useful.
He described the ego as a part of us that operates on the “reality principle”. This means that its job is to adapt us to the reality we find ourselves in. It is trying to help us survive by making us conform to social norms of our society, community and family to avoid rejection. It doesn’t much care if we are happy, only that we continue to live. The more restrictive our social environment is, the more we must conform, and the more critical our mind becomes.
To do that it has to repress what Freud called “the Id”, our right brain hemisphere function. The id’s job is to express who we are, to pursue our dreams, to live by our values and become the best version of ourselves. It’s our “thrive” brain. Freud described it as operating on the “pleasure principle”, meaning that it wants to feel good, which it does if we are meeting our needs. However, if the impulses, feelings and desires of our id are unacceptable to our social environment, then the ego must stop them from being seen (to keep us safe). It achieves this through the function of criticism, judgment and rejection. The more it is necessary to keep our id invisible, the more critical the ego becomes.
So, the critical mind is just trying to protect us, but its protection comes at the cost of our happiness and self-esteem. To keep us small, it must make us feel small. To keep us conforming it must punish self-expression. To keep us safe, it must stop us from shining. This creates what the psychologist Carl Jung called a shadow self, a distorted version of the id. The id is prevented from its natural expression which would bring natural and healthy pleasures and must seek pleasure in other not-so-healthy ways such as over eating, drugs, alcohol and other addictive behaviours.
In your case beleaguered, it’s likely that you have had to repress your natural expression and despite your many ego driven accomplishments, your id is constantly under assault. Your ego’s demands that you look a certain way, behave a certain way and be an acceptable person are leading to unhealthy eating behaviours, which are impacting your appearance, which in turn opens you up to further criticism from the ego. It’s a vicious cycle that makes itself worse with each passing year, and each new diet.
What can we do about this?
Step 1 is de-identifying with the ego demands. Most of us “back” our ego and believe that it is our id which is creating the problem, so we try even harder to repress and control the behaviours that are problematic. You know the drill – the next diet, the next exercise program, the next life coach or personal trainer. With every ego-driven action of critical self-correction we further entrench the power differential and drive our id into even further darkness and despair. In order to break the cycle we must stop putting our faith in the ego’s repression. This can be very scary because we think that if we ever take the chains off the id it will run wild and completely destroy our life. It won’t. I promise.
Step 2 is not overreacting and turning against the ego. Sometimes people realise that it is the ego that is the real problem and get very hostile towards it. They switch sides in the war. This only scares the heck out of the ego and it fights back harder, and the war continues. What we really need to do is end the war between our two brains. They were designed to work together towards a common goal, and if we had the kind of social circumstances that supported that, the conflict would never have happened. The war within us is an adaptation to a bad circumstance.
Step 3 is to forgive ourselves for what we didn’t know. We have all done the best we could with what we had, and so have our brains. The past is not our fault, but the future is our responsibility, but only once we have the response-ability. Our ego and our id have both been formed inside the environment of our childhood, and their separation from each other prevents them from evolving past that initial situation. They are stuck in a previous time and cannot adapt to the present because they are no longer communicating constructively.
Step 4 is reconciliation. There is a third part of our consciousness held in the prefrontal cortex, possibly what Freud called the super-ego. Today we call it the executive brain, because it has the ability to self-reflect and appears to manage the relationship between the two hemispheres. This is the “I” that is able to de-identify, restrain our reactions, forgive our self and referee between our warring selves. Its job is to take control of this problem and turn us onto a new path. There are several things it needs to do.
The first is acceptance. There are only two ways we can respond to any event, including the ones that happen inside of us. We can either meet them with judgment and hatred (more of the same self-rejection) or meet them with love. Acceptance is how we meet them with love. Acceptance doesn’t mean that we agree with them, or like what they are doing, or want it to continue. It means that we approach them in a way that seeks to compassionately understand them.
When we judge parts of ourselves, we force them to defend, which prevents any possibility of real change. When we accept parts of ourselves we are bringing our intelligence and our love to them, which creates the possibility of transformation and healing.
Accepting both our brains, and understanding the roles they have, allows us to facilitate a common goal that meets both their needs. We can then negotiate a truce and give the ego a new job description, one in which it facilitates surviving through supporting our thriving.
But what does that look like?
That’s all nice in theory, right? But how do we do it? Now, disclaimer first. The following are general strategies, not specific therapeutic recommendations. A persistent eating issue really should be taken to a counsellor who addresses this, but this may be of some help.
Let’s start with the mirror.
When you look in the mirror you are not seeing the whole truth. Sure, you may be overweight, and you may not like it, but that isn’t who you are. What you are seeing is the unfortunate consequence of the disconnection between your brains. Our thinking has become very distorted if we believe that scales measure our worth rather than our weight.
So, let’s expand our minds view of things. Look in the mirror and find the things you like about yourself, not just the things you wish were different. Reflect (pun intended) on all the good qualities you have as a person – your kindness, values, the contributions you make, your sense of humour, your work ethic and intelligence. Take stock of all the things that prove your real worth.
Then, take a good look at the potential of your body, underneath all the pain it has stored as fat. See through the weight to your underlying musculature, observe the things you like, or used to like, about your physicality. Finally, recognise the incredible way this body has supported and sustained you and allow yourself to imagine your body at its best, after you have started loving it again.
However, I don’t recommend taking the whole “all bodies are beautiful” approach. Not because they aren’t, but because we intrinsically know what our best body is, and we don’t need to be arguing with that. I really liked that at the end of Feeling Pretty she still hopped back on the bike, she understood that it still takes work to be fit and healthy.
Finally, make a new commitment to a healthy you that is based in a realistic and achievable desire to feel good in your own body, not in an arbitrary weight goal or image of yourself. The aim is to make a commitment that is about you enjoying being a physical being, not trying to prove your worth through conforming to some weird social expectation. All healthy bodies are beautiful.
Now for the eating
Altering the way you use the mirror, to appreciate instead of hate yourself, will probably already have a positive impact. When we stop making ourselves feel bad, we don’t need to use the food to feel better. However, if eating is your “go to” in times of stress you may continue to binge for a while. The aim is not to prevent that, which is what your ego has been trying to do already, but to learn a better way to respond to yourself during and after the binge.
Typically, when people binge they dissociate to some extent first. They need to feel better, and their conscious ego won’t let them. So they shut it down, do what they need to do to feel better, and come back to awareness afterwards. Usually followed by the critical ego going into overdrive and punishing them for their disobedience.
If we instead accept that we will lapse into our usual coping behaviours, we can begin to intervene in that dissociation response. Either we can consciously choose to allow our self to binge and stay present while we do, or we can learn to love our self after we come back to awareness, or both. Taking the attitude that this is the best I can do right now helps us bring love to the situation, and that starts to give us new options. This usually has the effect of shortening or lessening the binge, but even if it doesn’t it will usually impact the future positively.
We have used eating to cope with our right brain emotions, because we haven’t been listening to their needs (see this article for a better understanding of needs and emotions). In turn, we haven’t been able to hear our bodies signals telling us that this isn’t feeling good physically. By being compassionately present we can better hear these needs and find new ways to respond through reassuring, affirming and supporting ourselves.
Now, the critical mind
The band Skyhooks (showing my age) famously said “Ego is not a dirty word”. They were right, it is just doing its job the best way it knows. By turning our compassion towards it we can also gently transform it, a bit like correcting a wayward employee. Surround it with support, education and mentoring. We need to teach our ego how to do its job better by loving, encouraging, validating and affirming us. We need to tell it that the situation has changed, and it’s okay to shine now. We can reassure our ego that our id is not the enemy and help them to learn to work together towards our best life.
It may not feel like it right now, but you are the captain of this ship, and its course is yours to control. The ego wants to steer you away from the rocks, even to the point of making sure you never leave the harbour. The id wants to explore new horizons, which is risky, but if they work together to both keep you safe and pursue new destinations, it can be a wonderful journey.
Feeling Pretty resolved when the main character decide to captain her ship and get her ego on board with a more positive story about who she was, and who she wanted to be. She learnt to love herself, as she was, while also doing her best to realise her potential. That’s what I call a happy ending. I hope yours will be too.
About the author: Adam Blanch is a Melbourne-based psychologist, who supports clients around Australia. He provides support for individuals and group trainings for organisations through Good-Psychology, and a specific service for men’s health and wellbeing through Mentor Psychology. He is also a member of The Xfactor Collective community.
Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.