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An existential approach to the conception of the self,
This review is from: The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (Penguin Psychology) (Paperback)
In this valuable study, Dr Laing proposes to examine the way some individuals are very proficient in acquiring a false self in order to adapt to false realities and to give an account of specifically personal forms of depersonalisation and disintegration. It is no small task for the therapist to articulate what the patient's "world" is and his way of being in it in order to outline his psychopathology. The author states that if we look at his actions as signs of a disease, we impose categories of thoughts on the patient in our effort to try to explain his mental state and it isn't easy for the therapist to transpose himself into the patient's strange and alien view of world in order to understand his existential position.
Dr Laing states that many patients suffer from "ontological insecurity" because they feel insubstantial, the ordinary circumstances of life constituting a continual threat to their own existence. He mentions personalities like Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon. Then Dr Laing proceeds by giving the account of three forms of anxiety encountered by the ontologically insecure subject: engulfment, implosion and petrification. To illustrate these three forms, the author describes the case of Mrs R. who suffered from agoraphobia and schizohphrenic withdrawal.
Interestingly enough, the schizoid individual constantly feels vulnerable as he is exposed by the look of another person and that is why he fears live dialectical relationships with live people and prefers to relate himself to depersonalised persons or to phantoms of his own fantasies, thus the distinction between the "embodied" and "unembodied" self. Such an individual is afraid of the world, frightened that any impingement will be total and engulfing. He is afraid of letting himself "go", of coming out of himself or of losing himself because he feels that he will be depleted, exhausted, emptied, robbed or sucked dry. So for the schizoid individual, direct participation in life is felt as being at a risk of being destroyed by life. One aspect of this individual's ontological insecurity is the precariousness of his subjective sense of his own aliveness and the sense that others threaten this tentative feeling. The schizoid individual strongly believes in his own destructiveness by others. This view is in accord to the existentialist's philosophy represented by Jean-Paul Sartre who stated in his famous theatre play "Huis Clos" that "L'enfer, c'est les autres."
Thus a false self can arise in the individual which is in compliance with the intentions and expectations of the other or with what are imagined to be the other's intentions or expectations. Indeed, the self-conscious person feels he is more the object of other people's interest than in fact he is. And so the schizoid individual carries out defences like being like everyone else, being someone other than oneself, playing a part, being nobody or being incognito and anonymous. So if the gaze of others is experienced as a threat, there is a constant dread and resentment at being turned into someone else's thing (what Sartre called "l'être-pour-autrui"), of being penetrated by him, and a sense of being in someone else's power and control. Freedom then consists in being inaccessible. Love too for schizoid individuals is viewed as disguised persecution since it aims to turn him into an object of the other.
This type of individual can be himself in safety only in isolation. With others he plays an elaborate game of pretence and his social life is felt to be false and futile. But the more he keeps his "true self" concealed and unseen, the more he presents to others a false front and the more compulsive this fake presentation of himself becomes. This can lead to a complete disintegration of the personality.