Sexual Envy and Hopeless Self Help: A Brief Response to The Hotel Concierge

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Tumblerite The Hotel Concierge has written a strident and broad advice piece/ social science observational on attraction.  I greatly enjoyed the piece but I think he misses the centrality of shame and resentment in what he calls narcissism.  One true achievement of the march of history, much like the hallmark of psychosexual maturation into adulthood, is the ability to freely choose ones role models.  It is quite easy to be attractive:  Emulate the motivations, ethics and behavior of those you admire. What prevents people from doing this is the idolatry of their rivavlrous gods.

THC’s rangy exposition involves the following train of logic as far as I can tell – which I don’t mean as a dig.  I obviously love a good tangential aside as much as the next:

  1.  America, as modern market democracy par excellence is competitive and obsessed with a statistical mindset of interpersonal comparisons including physical beauty or attractiveness.
  2. Not to be soothed by accepting ones lot in life, you can after all get better and improve yourself.  He states that beauty is an mutable truth, by which he means it is adaptable, or more adaptable than people tend to think when using feelings of unattractiveness to justify their weeping and gnashing of teeth.
  3. He proceeds to rebut the popular equation of (#evopsych+FMRI+TED talks =buy my ebook) which propelled folks like David D’Angleo to financial success and which leads to ascribing beauty and attraction to health traits and Skinnerian behavioral triggers.  He concludes his point with noting that the emergence of sexual differences during puberty either become conditioned to a hormonal response or perhaps are simply socially learned.
  4. He contrasts loneliness with love, and posits that people want two things – power and love.
  5. The desire for power signal-boosts social hierarchies into the stratosphere of the Big Men and Rubbish Men (and then chicks).  Behold – the birth of prototypes.
  6. Embrace a type in contrast to the desire to shop around eclectically, statistics and sanity are on your side.

Prototypes are a relic of capitalism which has given us infinitely reproducible goods.  You don’t covet your neighbors Ox as much as you covet the wife of the guy in the Ox commercial you both watched before buying Oxen.  This helps you avoid conflict with your neighbor since you don’t care about the Ox or the wife.  You just envy the guy in the commercial, his desire, his pride, his magesterium of being as embodied by the Ox and the wife.  Before prototypes there were actually types:  Born a peasant, die a peasant, enjoy a peasants pleasures and resentments along the way.  Prototypes are transcendental and keep peasants from rioting thanks to metaphysics and Freud’s primary process (the substitution of an objects representation for the thing itself).

The unfortunate advice to aspiring Don Juan’s and successful businessmen alike has always been to act like you’re already successful.  The unstated presumption behind this advice is that it means acting like someone else.  Before markets this meant someone specific. Here we see the truth of desire: It is always mediated by the existence of some Other.  The inability to sincerely imitate (mimetic admiration) other people without falling into humiliation or rivalry is the hallmark of what people call “narcissism.”  This condition is also learned from someone who is too insecure to be idolized and forsaken by a child.

To the obsessed, the wretch who is convinced he has to have had sex with many women, it is not the women he wants, but the being of the mediator of his desire. He wants to be his role model, in this case the alpha male, or for women the girl who has it all.  These of course are no longer individuals, but metaphysical media golem’s.  Amalgams of fantasy and fiction have been ever more grafted onto ordinary identification.

The literary characters worth noting here of course include Don Juan himself.  But one must turn to Dostoevsky to understand the role of the man who idolizes a Don Juan archetype.  No story captures this wretchedness better than The Eternal Husband.   (Readers may also enjoy Rene Girard’s comparison to Don Quixote’s vignette, “The Ill-Advised Curiosity,” for an older tale of cuckoldry).  Cuckoldry upholds the desire for the woman above the bonds of resentment, and enshrines the role of Other as an idol.  The narcissist makes gods of his tormentors. It is them he wants to be.

(The corollary for women of course is Emma Bovary, who watched too many feminist videos on youtube…err…I mean read too many shitty Parisian novels.)

This is why these people, much like the consumer of real estate seminars, are rarely successful. They are hiding their actual desire from themselves, the desire to appropriate and embody the je ne sais quoi of their hidden role model. The reason one would avoid this is the conscious experience of self-loathing, the shame of interpersonal envy, and the inchoate danger of humiliation – failure and debasement in the face of your god. So instead, you must prove your worth before your idols.  Addictions and compulsions become a propitiatory sacrifice which never quite takes.

Being a nerd is to model your desire transcendentally.  It’s a fine way to avoid conflict, but is also a way to avoid contact.  And as such, it makes you traditionally unrelatable to some cohorts.  Much like postmodernism movies are increasingly complicated mystery boxes and bloggers such as THC and I are at risk of obfuscation.  We must after all not be accused of being typical.  As an aside, Pixar makes the best movies because the characters have clear motivations.

The self is first and foremost being-toward-others.  To be is to only ever be-like and a style is to be styled after.  Fashion is the blatant copying of other peoples appearance, which is why it must always change to hide this fact in an illusion of novel originality. These paradoxes of individuality and impersonation, vanity and authenticity are the snares of modernity and have lead to a century of escalating obsession with the psycho-mythology of narcissism.

Narcissism can never truly be self-apsorption.   Narcissus’ curse, after all, was that he thought he was staring at someone else.  The modern version of this is people who think they are trying to find themselves.  Look no further than your fellow man.

You’re Angry: A Basic Ego Analysis Example

Photo by lvl Laturla via Flickr
Photo by lvl Laturla via Flickr

Therapists, couples and people in general often have the experience of being in the presence of someone who seems angry but isn’t expressing it.  This can produce feelings of anxiety, since most people are not comfortable with their own anger or, ipso facto, that of others.

Is this person angry at me?  Did I do something?  Will they blow up at any minute?  What’s with them anyway?  This can lead to counter-blame or counter anger.  You can become angry at this person for making you anxious, for creating tension or making you doubt yourself.  You then might even feel guilty about having these feelings and so forth.  You usually end up doing nothing or blurting something out due to anxiety.

Another common response is to try and indirectly check in with the person by enquiring how things are going or to test the waters in some way.  Therapists may point out that this is codependent, trying to take care of someone else’s feelings.  They may offer the insight that this is how, from a position of real inferiority, you once tried to deal with the feelings of your parents.

Another interpretation is that you are trying to avoid your feelings by avoiding theirs, trying to smooth things over.  This makes sense based on the behavior alone in that what you are indeed saying and doing is actually not addressing either their feelings or yours.  Perhaps you are trying to imply concern in the hopes of soothing the underlying conflict.  It may reflect a worry on your part that you can’t handle their anger, that you feel embarrassed about how easily their anger is already effecting you.

In psychoanalysis and some other forms of therapy and even the recommendations of some self help authors they may make or recommend a naming interpretation that could be as simple as “You’re angry.”  This could be well intentioned, in that the speaker thinks they are being helpful and may not have any normalizing beliefs about anger (“…and you’re an asshole for being angry with me!”) which are being sub-communicated.

However, this often produces a negative reaction.  The person denies being angry or erupts into rage and blaming.  Traditionally, this would be viewed as confirmation of the therapists interpretation in the case of the former, or evidence of a weak ego and narcissistic rage in the latter.  In ego-analysis, these would be weak ego = strong super ego and narcissistic rage would be shame about shame.

The ego-analysis approach, what I’d like to call reality psychology or the psychology of innocence, would say this interpretation is wrong.  By this I mean that the person isn’t really angry.  By which I mean they cannot feel entitled to / experience / express / enhabit the ontological experience of being angry.  You can tell this because the angry person often hears the received message that “You’re wrong to be angry!” 

The actual experience of the person is that they cannot be angry.  They are held back from being angry by super ego effects such as shame, guilt and fear.  And, in reality, the anxious partner often does indeed believe, and thus communicate, that they think the other person is indeed wrong to be angry, no matter how they say it.

An ego-analysis would look something like:  “It would be natural to have feelings of anger right now and if you did you might feel like you shouldn’t, or that I wouldn’t respect that or be concerned that I can’t handle hearing them.”  This of course may still just drive the feelings underground or cause explosive reactions.

This is because the opposite could be true since ego-analysis is amoral and non-normative.  The person may feel like they should be angry and are unable to express it.  They may feel like they are weak, immature or broken for not being able to stand up for themselves like other people seem able to do.

The point is that simply saying “You’re angry” is unlikely to produce relief but may be a key to the reality (causal relationship) of their problem, which is how they relate to their anger.  Not knowing this problem exists is part of the problem.

One thing that could help is being vulnerable and respectful about your response.  Perhaps something like “I’ve been feeling like I’m walking on eggshells lately, like maybe you’re angry with me.  I keep telling myself that I shouldn’t be so sensitive.  If you were angry with me it would probably be hard to tell me since I’m being oversensitive already.  If you are angry, I probably should already know why and that’s gotta be frustrating.”  The reason you would say this is that it is actually how you are feeling.

Some people will read this and conclude it is codependent.  They may recommend bypassing all thoughts and feelings about your conversational partner’s experience,  to just focus on yourself and your feelings and let them deal with theirs.  Sadly, it may take you years of personal therapy to be able to address someones anger without having any of your own insecurities about doing so – if this is possible at all.  Your life is happening now.  Pretending not to have these insecurities by covering it up with neutral looking self help is part of the problem.  Showing your actual feelings about what you are saying let’s the relationship have the chance of itself being therapeutic.

To think you ought to deal with you and let them deal with them is idealistic naiveté based on the normalizing belief that we all just should be more mature (read: better) and differentiated than we actually are.  It relies on an idealization of psychological health (which refers to theoretical moralized perfection, not the cause of mental processes) and denies the reality of life and itself serves as a moral justification for ignoring the way we actually effect each other.

Besides, the person may be pissed at you because you already are avoiding their feelings, which is exactly why you sought out the self-help advice to bypass your thoughts and feelings about them in the first place.  Perhaps they know that your therapist is just an ally you have enlisted to justify your position.  It’s also why you can’t see their shame.  Because you are both engaged in a process of helping each other hide your mutual vulnerabilities.  If this process goes on unconsciously you wind up fighting over respect under the pretense of issues rather than disagreeing about issues from a place of respect.

The final defense of the codependency crowd may be that ultimately you can only respect yourself.  This is an appealing belief, and it may even be true in that other people help or hinder our ability to learn how to respect ourselves.  Were it not for the fact that it seems to deny the lived experience of almost everyone throughout time I may be inclined to believe it.

If the angry person actually had self-respect she would freely enjoy expressing her anger.  If the anxious conversational partner actually had self-respect she would not be so threatened by another’s anger, and would have no insecurities to bypass and would not experience vulnerability as subordination.

It may indeed be wise for therapists to not disclose their feelings or the counter-transference.  But it can be immensely helpful for their clients understand why this is:  Differentiation is an ideal which may be impossible for some of us all the time or all of us some of the time.  If you doubt this, consider how many therapists obsess about whether or not to shake your hand, accept a gift, give a hug, take notes, negotiate fees, say hello in public, etc.  It seems to me like there is some evidence of a resignation about the limitations of human potential which is repressed by a systemic moral appeal to professional responsibility.

This appeal to the responsibility ethic is itself a moral position, not a causal analysis.  To not realize it is a problem is the problem. To try to solve the problem by assigning responsibility is an attempt at an ethical solution, to feel alright about not solving the problem.

Perhaps the admonition to avoid thinking about how enmeshed we all are is an aspirational denial of reality.  You know, we just don’t talk about that around here.