So first, what is the pseudoself? Essentially, it’s just means “ego”. But the term “ego” has tons of baggage around it, brought in everywhere from new age thought to psychoanalysis. “Pseudoself” is simpler, it just means fake self.
It’s just your own self-image, the idea of yourself in your head. It’s fake in the sense that, well, you’re not a thought about yourself. Our identities are fictional, in a similar way that the idea of a lion is not an actual lion – it’s a fictional representation of a lion. None of this should be controversial.
But here’s the catch: our identities aren’t just fictional – they’re fictional in a very specific way. Everyone’s identity, in some way, paints them as a good person (or nice, or cool, or decent, or morally correct, or something along those lines). You can see this obviously in narcissists, but it can be very subtle – it could take the form of “well, I mess up a lot, but I’m trying to become better, so I’m fundamentally decent”. You don’t need to have these actually thoughts occur in your head, it could just be an assumption.
It’s there in someone who is mentally beating themselves up as well. You’re attacking yourself for being bad, therefore you’re good.
I don’t think any of this should be controversial either. Everyone knows everyone is biased in their own favor, everyone is on their own side, everyone has a certain amount of pride and vanity, some they’re aware of and some they’re not.
So pseudoself = a fictional self-image that’s biased towards us being good. Again, essentially just how new-agers define the ego.
Now here’s the weird idea:
The idea is that the pseudoself, the ego, evolved for its own self-preservation, and has a parasitic relationship to humans.
This is wacko, paranoid, crazy person talk. But I think I can make it less so:
Daniel Dennett identified three things that are not only necessary for evolution to occur, but guarantee it will happen. I’ll quote a friend here, which is paraphrasing Dennett:
“There are three conditions for evolution. They are reproduction, variation and competition.A thing has to be able to copy itself, that’s reproduction. Those copies must be different from each other,that’s variation. There needs to be some limited resource over which the copies compete, that’s competition.
If these three things are present in any habitat, evolution is inevitable. Life will occur. Nothing can stop it.”
In the 70’s, Richard Dawkins wrote a book called “The Selfish Gene” in which he presents the idea that thoughts can evolve. Again here’s a summary from a friend:
“Thoughts can reproduce. You can have a thought and tell your friend that thought, then you both have that thought. The thought has been copied.
All thoughts vary. We each have a different brain, we’re different people. All of our thoughts have a unique spin. Even mathematical equations sit differently in people’s minds because we look at them from our unique perspectives. No matter how exact, no copy of any idea can ever be a clone.
Some thoughts come and go, unable to gain traction. Other times, though, something very different happens. Some thoughts grab us, rivet us. Thoughts compete.
Human attention and emotion increase a thought’s compelling power, and thus its ability to reproduce.The more feeling an idea can provoke from a human the more it can stick in our minds. The more a thought moves us the harder it is to keep quiet about.
Some ideas grow so powerful they come to dominate us. We build lives around them. Sometimes we champion them at the expense of our own well being. We can let ideas dictate our basic engagement with reality.
We can seek out and focus on things that increase how much we believe ideas we already believe. We can discard evidence that undermines our ideas. Doing this can make us look stupid.
It can also lead us into worse things than embarrassment. We can destroy our own lives. We can hurt people because we’re so invested in an idea that we become callous. We can be so dominated by an idea that we enjoy the pain we cause to others because we believe it right that they suffer.
Even if we’re not hurting anyone, the energy we could be pouring into improving our lives we instead pour into beliefs that don’t help us at all. We get stuck in compulsive cycles, strange addictions, hair-trigger reactions and vicious spirals.
When ideas dominate us in this way it doesn’t help our lives at all. We damage others, we damage the world we live in and we damage ourselves. None of these behaviours make sense from a human perspective – our evolution should have weeded them out. But there is another possibility.
When evolution’s three conditions of reproduction, variation and competition occur all together, evolution is locked. The roller coaster has begun to move, the bar has clicked in position and we’re in there for the ride. It takes a while to get where it’s going but the destination is life.
Life has its own agenda: to survive, feed and reproduce. It adapts to its environment in amazing ways,and it works for itself.
Evolution doesn’t need blood and muscle, or cells, or even DNA. It is not limited to the physical. All it needs is self-replicating information. It doesn’t care if it’s happening in a physical habitat or in some other form of place. It doesn’t care about anything. It’s merely a process, it does what it does.
Ideas are alive.”
It’s not that weird, really.
Think about it this way: Our brains will *much* more easily indulge in flattering thoughts than unflattering ones, even at the expense of truth. Flattering thoughts give us a hit of pleasure, a bump of self-esteem.
Believing oneself to be a decent, morally correct person is perhaps the most thought there is.
So putting everything together – is it really that strange to entertain the possibility that identity itself has evolved to exploit our mind’s natural tendency for self-flattery? Is it crazy to consider that?
Look at all the drama and arguments you’ve personally ever had with another person. You’ve always felt you were in the right, the other person felt they were in the right, you both feel you’re being wronged, and you both rip into each other.
In the moment of intense argument, how easy is it to slow down and honestly consider the viewpoint of the other person? How often do you stop, mid argument, step fully into their perspective, and consider the possibility they might be correct?
Virtually never. You might do it afterwards, maybe, sometimes, but in the heat of the drama you’re focused on one thing: proving you’re right, you’re morally correct, they’re wrong.
Defending your identity as a good person.
So we have the pseudoself as a fictional self-image of ourselves as good people, which compels us to defend this image, often at the cost of our personal relationships.
Alright, I know this is getting long. There’s one more element to this idea, which leads into a way to permanently disrupt the ego’s ability to delude you, to harm you, to compel you into conflict and depression and self-destruction.
The final bit is: What if the psudoself, made of fictional pride – what if it is a complete fiction, and has us deluded to a degree that is total?
Basically, there’s one central assumption we all make which gives our egos their power: the assumption that feelings have moral weight.
By that I mean: Imagine you feel loving towards someone, or kind, or caring, or passionate towards some moral goal. It’s natural to assume that those feelings prove that we are in some way decent people. There has to be some good in you to feel love for someone else, right?
But where do those feelings come from? They just kind of occur. They don’t cost us anything, we don’t have to sacrifice our own needs for the needs of others to get them. Everyone has them.
Now if, off of the back of one of those feelings, you go and do something to actually improve someone’s life, then yes, those feelings would have moral weight.
But what do we often do with them? We use them as evidence for our own self-image. “I’m so loving because I have these strong feelings of love!” “I’m a good person because I feel passionate about helping others!”
We wallow in them.
And yes, sometimes we do things that really help others. But what do we always do after? Praise ourselves for doing good, boost our own feelings of self-worth, feed the pseudoself.
Now the kicker is this: what if this is the only thing you really care about? What if every good belief about yourself is a lie? What if everything you do is for the purpose of building, communicating, and defending this image of yourself as a good person?
We all catch ourselves lying to ourselves sometimes, but what if the times when we don’t catch ourselves doing it are the times when we are fooled?
Now I can’t prove any of this with some scientific paper or psychological journal. But I think the reason is obvious – how many people actually consider this of themselves? How would you even get the funding to run an experiment where you ask people to entertain the idea that everything that props up their self-esteem is a fiction?
And even if I could give you a scientific paper which argues for this, it would mean *nothing* if you didn’t check the reality of this in your own life, which is something you can *obviously* do without a scientific paper.
So the fourth and final point: Ego death.
Why did I just type all this out?
Because – if someone looks at their own life, seriously checking to see if all of this is personally true about them, they can trigger a process which will permanently disrupt the ego’s ability to fool them.
I don’t like the term “ego death”, because nothing dies. And the term “enlightenment” is just more vanity. But that’s how it’s been described throughout the years, in the Eastern religious traditions especially. I reject their paradigm, but this is how to trigger the process they were describing.
To trigger this, you need to look at your own life from a painful, and radically different perspective:
You need to consider that everything you do, and care about, and love – all the good, fun, wonderful things about yourself – consider that all of it is just a show you’re putting on for yourself so you can stare in mesmerized happiness at how wonderful you are, and that’s literally all you do with your life.
Is there anything that isn’t that?
And the answer is, go and find out. Find out for yourself.
Now, you’ll find that, when looking at yourself from this angle, objections will immediately start popping up in your head. Look at them from this angle as well – “is it possible that these are all fake, hollow defenses which only exist to defend my identity?”
You want to keep looking and saying inside this perspective until you trigger an unstoppable process – a kind of implosion in your ego. You have to consider it from the most extreme angle – that *everything* good about you is a lie, an act put on by thought to fool you into believing you’re a decent person.
When you see something awful about yourself, your mind will start retreating into depression, or beating yourself up. Look at that from the same angle: “is there anything real about this? Or is it just another show my mind’s putting on about how much I care?”
If you see enough of this it will trigger a feedback loop that will essentially uncover all the lies your self-image and self-worth is sustained by. It’s painful. But you come out the other side very quickly – after about three days. And the lies can’t fool you anymore. And you’ll have no more interest in building or defending a fictional self image. The amount of conflict and drama and suffering in your life will *massively* reduce, and the ones that remain? You can always run this test on them and root them out, because they’re built on the same lies.
I believe anyone can trigger this process, because it worked for me exactly as it has in others.
Literally everything bad in my life – all the conflict, drama, self-destructive behaviors, depression, anxiety, broken relationships – all of it was driven by my personal desire to build and defend and protect and impose this fake moral display of myself as a good person. It was all, essentially, pride.
To think this was only true of me (and many others who have triggered this process) is ridiculous. The thing underlying *all* the drama and self-destructiveness in our lives is just a fluke in a few people? Haven’t all the great tragedies and wisdom traditions been about the danger and corruptive influence of pride?
But fuck it – if I’m wrong I’m wrong. Test it. Give it the full benefit of the doubt, really honestly push to trigger the ego avalanche, show me that you’ve put some serious effort into attempting it, and I’ll do what I can to see if there’s something I can help with. If you’re going to half-ass it though, and come back to me with a “I tried but I found out I’m actually still good because xyz” excuse, well I think you’ll see why I won’t take that seriously.
Triggering the uncovering process didn’t immediately free me of all the bullshit – I still have 30 years of conditioning towards defending my fake self. But already it’s like a massive weight has been lifted off of my soul – I can’t get offended anymore, can’t get provoked into pointless drama, rarely feel any sort of stress or worry, and am able to connect with people on a much deeper level because I’m not trying to impose a fake image onto them.
I still get down sometimes, still have the occasional panic attack, but far less often, and they last a fraction of the time they used to.