Authenticity in humans is no doubt one of the surest measurements of a healthy mental state. One that has a pureness of clarity, able to distinguish the real from the delusive, striving always for the truth; accepting of reality, accepting of itself. The healthy human psyche wears no disguise; does not hide behind rose-tinted glass; does not insulate itself from painful truths. Or does it?
There are few things more complex than the human mind and when it comes to authenticity, the waters are fairly murky.
According to Freud’s psychodynamic model, the psyche is composed of three distinct components; superego, ego and id. His well-established theory posits that the ego component sits smack dab in the middle between superego and id. In control of the reality state, ego strives to keep the peace while satisfying, at least in part, both the needs of superego and those of id. Id, with its intense need for immediate satisfaction of primal needs and superego, with its unrelenting, guilt-infusing reminder to always do the right thing. The inescapable kill-joy that is superego is a necessary counter-balance to the immature and insatiable primal drives of id.
Holding fort on the reality state is no easy feat for ego. At times, the conflict between id and superego can become so intense as to threaten the very existence of ego. Tension and conflict mount as id refuses to compromise on its pleasure principle and superego’s righteous voice cannot be quelled. When this occurs, ego must protect itself. It does so by putting up various defences; ego defences. Without such defences, the ego would lose all control of the reality state; disintegrating and imploding within itself. Chaos would ensue, leading to disastrous consequences for the organism itself.
Protected by the ego defences, the organism is allowed to continue to function, but it does so at the cost of self-deception. In the long run, the insulating cover of self-deception can lead to a weakening, or even a loss of the self; in the short run, it is an absolute necessity. Most (but not all) defences are unconscious and the organism itself is unaware of their existence. If we know what to look for, we can see these defences in others. Rarely can we see them in ourselves.
What does this all mean in the context of personal growth and authenticity? There is hope. It is possible to become aware of the defences that we construct. We can start to see the walls we put up through self-awareness, learning, catharsis, self-acceptance, self-honesty and a willingness to face our demons. It isn’t an easy task to be sure. We must consciously come face to face with those things that threaten us the most. We must climb that tree, find the weakest branch and walk on it until it breaks. Only then can we come to understand that we will survive facing even our greatest fears. As the walls slowly fall away, clarity replaces the muted, protective veil on reality and authenticity replaces self-deception.
Self-deception has its place, but seeking authenticity through the removal of at least some of our defences will lead to a stronger grasp of reality, and in turn, a more realistic and defined sense of self. True peace of mind can only come through genuine acceptance of what and who we are.
I recently read a great book called Hide and Seek; The Psychology of Self-Deception by Dr. Neel Burton. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in reading a clear description of all of the ego-defences. Fascinating stuff.