Identity and the tyranny of self doubt

One of my brothers alerted me to several relatives in Holland who have made contact with him through Facebook. Presumably they knew to make contact with him because of their shared second name.

Once again, I was saddened by my concealed identity, hidden by my married name.

More and more as I grow older, I resent the loss of my maiden name. Not just my maiden name, but the name of so many other women from my past who married and then seemingly disappeared from the world of possible connections.

Every time I try to befriend someone on Facebook who travels under my father’s family name, my so-called maiden name, I need to identify myself as a Schooneveldt and not some random stranger who’s approaching them for friendship, as if an unwanted spammer.

A number of people have asked me why I don’t assume a false identity online so as not to create problems associated with my other roles in life, as a writer, as a therapist, and given my familial ties with some people preferring that all things family stay offline and some friends likewise.

But if I assumed a false persona wouldn’t I have to give all the ‘real’ people in my life a false identity too, not that I identify people online unless they’re in the public domain. Still after a while it all gets too hard.

I prefer to start from the point of myself as a real person, however many identities I might assume under that guise.

And maybe it’s just a rationalisation, but as Margaret Atwood writes ‘All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read.’

Too much time has elapsed between composition and publication. She’s talking here about published books and their authors but maybe the same could be said of blogs and so much writing that appears online.

In the immediacy of a chat room or on Twitter or Facebook, maybe it’s safe to assume the words and the person who typed them are one and the same, but the very fact of writing them changes things.

Nothing stands still even as words on a page can appear fixed. Once read by another person those written words can shift around. They’re open to different interpretations and perspectives even after they’re published.

We all imagine the words differently.

Identity is like this, too. It’s fluid. It shifts and sways and refuses to stay put.

I hesitated to post these meandering thoughts until I read Adam Phillips “Against Self-Criticism” from his book Unforbidden Pleasures. (Thanks Christine Brett Vickers for putting me onto this.

If you’re anything like me, these words might give you the courage you need to go on in defiance of that ‘obscene superego’, and the internal voice that tells you to shut up.

Phillips writes:

“We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences?

Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves.

Nothing makes us more critical – more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused – than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves.

But the self-critical part of ourselves, the part that Freud calls the super-ego, has some striking deficiencies: it is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive.

It is cruelly intimidating – Lacan writes of ‘the obscene super-ego’ – and it never brings us any news about ourselves.

There are only ever two or three things we endlessly accuse ourselves of, and they are all too familiar; a stuck record, as we say, but in both senses – the super-ego is reiterative.

It is the stuck record of the past (‘something there badly not wrong’, Beckett’s line from Worstward Ho, is exactly what it must not say) and it insists on diminishing us. It is, in short, unimaginative; both about morality, and about ourselves.

Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel.

We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.”

11 thoughts on “Identity and the tyranny of self doubt”

  1. Thankyou for the link to me, Lis…Yes, this relentless self doubt is quite enough without other people putting their problems with their critical superego onto one.

    1. I relish the way Adam Phillips writes, Christine. He hits the nail on the head in so many of his musings and leaves us with so much to think about. You send along such inspirational thoughts, too. Thanks.

  2. Meandering thoughts from you? What a surprise. Name changes are a nightmare for family history research (yes, I can’t spell that g word). We of the older types on the internet invented anonymous internet profiles. Young people don’t bother.

    1. I’m glad you can bear the occasional meandering post from me, Andrew. And you’re right, family name changes can make genealogical research a headache. Thanks, Andrew.

  3. I watched Alan Bennett’s ‘The Lady in the Van’ a few days ago. One of the things he does in the film is split the character of ‘Alan Bennett’ into two:

    The writer is double. There is the self who does the writing and there
    is the self who does the living. And they talk. They argue. Writing
    is talking to one’s self, and I’ve been doing it all my life, and long
    before I first saw this house five years ago.

    It works well and there are a couple of occasions where the one who does the living interrupts the natural flow of the dialogue turns to the one who does the writing (whom only he can see) to say:

    She didn’t say this.

    No, but why shouldn’t she?

    or something along those lines. We all think we know Alan Bennett. He’s been a fixture on TV for years and probably qualifies for ‘national treasure’ status along with the likes of Dame Barbara Windsor and Sir David Attenborough but I recall a few years back when he finally “came out” everyone breathing a sigh of relief: FINALLY! only for us to learn a wee while later that he’d had an ongoing relationship with a woman of all things for many years. No, no, we didn’t know Alan Bennett and what right did we have to presume?

    Freud made up the super-ego. It doesn’t really exist any more than ‘the real me’ exists but it’s a convenient way to talk about a part of our psyche. We’re been using the term for almost a hundred years now and so we’ve started to think of it as a real thing. Margaret Atwood used to be Mrs Polk—she was married to Jim Polk for five years—and now she’s living with (but not married to) fellow writer Graeme Gibson. I suppose ‘Margaret Atwood’ is a thing she does, someone she becomes to do the necessary or maybe it’s the other way round; it probably is.

    I’ve started reading ‘The Book of Chameleons’ by José Eduardo Agualusa—the only book I know of narrated by a gecko—and there’s a character in the book who provides people with new pasts, for a price, “a man who dealt in memories, a man who sold the past, clandestinely, the way other people deal in cocaine. […] They were businessmen, ministers, landowners, diamond smugglers, generals—people, in other words, whose futures are secure. But what these people lack is a good past, a distinguished ancestry, diplomas. In sum, a name that resonates with nobility and culture.” A photographer comes with money and various requests but unlike most he gets so caught up in his new life he starts to forget it’s only pretend; he becomes this new person.

    I think too much importance can be placed on the past. It’s how we got where we are and thank you for that but that’s it. The here and now is far more important; we need to keep things in perspective. I have difficulty identifying with the man who wrote the poems I’ve been posting on my blog for the last eighteen months. Every time I upload one I find myself struggling to remember what was going through my mind at the time or even what was happening in my life at the time. I’m just a reader now like the rest of you. I was going to say “reduced to” but I don’t believe readers are lesser than writers; we’re complementary.

    1. As you know Jim, you and I have a different respect for the past. I’m steeped in it, whereas you prefer to move beyond it. I use my fantasy/memory/imaginings of it relentlessly in my writing. I see it almost as my bag of tricks. Whereas from what you’ve told me your memory of events is not so clear. Mind you you’ve said that to me often and yet in your comments from me you often recount details from your past with some clarity which makes me think you remember more than you give yourself credit for. Mind you, as you already know memory is fickle and prone to fictionalising. I’m not sure how I’d g with a newest. it might be okay if I forgot the former past, but if I had access to both, then heaven help me.
      To me superego is another word for conscience, something we all have -ideally- and need if we are to behave with a reasonable degree of decency and civility. But of course consciences can be too rigid and harsh. They can cripple us.
      Thanks, Jim

  4. What’s in a name? . . . . (you know the rest) Elisabeth, I am fascinated that you bemoan the loss of your ‘maiden’ name, a very parochial concept. Why do you not identify with your mother’s name? Are you also not as much a part of her? Which name/s will your daughters identify with? Or is it just the problem the difference in your name has caused you in your connection with your father’s family? What of the people from your mother’s family? Have they tried to find you or you them?
    Do you also know that the idea of a family name is simply that. An idea that seems to have become entrenched as a given. In fact there is no law stating what our names should be and no child is bound by their parents/family names.
    As for the super-ego, the fact that many of us can identify with a group of like-named people, I think, gives us place and value.
    (On a completely different tack, “. . the violence of our preferences.” What a wonderful. descriptive phrase.)

    1. I suspect the reason I identify more with my father’s family name than with my mother’s relates to the fact it was the one given to me from birth. Mind you, my name as a child was also identical to my mother’s, Elisabeth Margaretha Maria Schooneveldt, only she had a Mrs in front and I was a Miss. As well, my mother’s family of Hooijs are well chronicled. We now have an archive, the Hooij family archive, that’s full to bursting with stuff, but my father’s family is scattered and as far as I know not so well memorialised. On top of which, my mother told us incessantly about her family. My father said almost nothing about his. It gets to you. At least it got to me and my curiosity. Besides, all my siblings bar one, my two sisters who once bore their married names but divorced and have since reverted to their maiden names all carry my father’s name. Only I and one other sister have changed our names as it were for good. I still harbour fantasies of reverting to Schooneveldt one day, though I imagine it’ll never happen. and yes I recognise family names are not fixed in concrete. Witness my own daughter whose small family has an entirely new name of their own choosing, and although at first it rattled me I now reckon it’s terrific. Thanks, Karen.

  5. Thank you, Elisabeth. The background of your feelings explains everything. I discovered shortly after my mother died that she had been adopted. By a step-family member. That, and the circumstances under which it happened, really turned upside down everything I believed and identified with. My children, however, have never known grandparents and show little to no interest in their roots. I have to admit to a sadness about that.

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