Paul Verhaeghe – Intimacy


Sample translation Page 222-233


Identification and freedom


Identification is the key process in the development of our identity, in which our parents show us who we are and who we should become. Ideally, their reflections will be closely connected to their child’s experience and will contain high, but preferably also realistic expectations concerning what the child can become, and how. Another process in our development is at least equally important: besides those oh-so-necessary identifications, children must also be given the chance to distance themselves from the adults who are raising them and make their own choices in favour of different views, different ideas, different ideals. This is referred to as ‘separation’ in the specialist literature. That’s a word with generally negative connotations, but in this case it has an expressly positive meaning, because it grants us a little bit of freedom.

Imagine that as a child you were presented, always and everywhere, with the same reflections of yourself. You were constantly told that you are stupid and careless, that you never listen. The result is predictable: you have no choice, your identity becomes a carbon copy of what you have been told. Fortunately, such a situation is rare: under normal circumstances, a child is presented with a range of reflections of the same behaviour. A behaviour that prompts Mum to exclaim, ‘You’ve got no patience, just like your Grandpa. Try to go slow and steady,’ might elicit a very different response from Dad: ‘Well done, you’re a go-getter, just like Grandpa.’ The child can choose which reflection to identify with. Later in life, as an adult, he or she can actively seek out new views, different ideals which are more in line with his or her feelings, and with the person he or she is.

One example of this which has always stuck in my mind concerns a man in his thirties who I struck up a conversation with on a sunny terrace while on holiday. He was sitting with his nose buried in a textbook because he was preparing for an exam. At the age of eighteen, he had taken a job working in the local administration offices of the town where he lived. This choice was the logical consequence of the message he had constantly received as his parents’ only child: studying and working are boring, keep both to a minimum – and they were both role models for such behaviour. As part of his job as a pen-pusher, he came into contact with the technical side of waste treatment – a subject which gradually began to interest him more and more. A couple of short courses were not enough to quench his thirst for knowledge on this subject. At the time I made his acquaintance, he was just finishing a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. He told me about how, to his own astonishment, he had discovered that he actually quite enjoyed studying and working, despite what his parents had always told him. He also told me how one of his older colleagues had encouraged him from the outset, until he began cautiously to consider entering higher education. When alternative opportunities are lacking, the potentially alienating effect of the identification process becomes a reality. If I am constantly and exclusively told that hard work and studying are a fool’s game, then I will identify with that view and lose any interest in studying, and the idea of working will never be pleasant.

An ideal upbringing strikes a balance between the identifications offered and the opportunities for separation. In other words, between external determination and autonomy. Determination, because children have to identify with what they are presented with. Autonomy because they are given the opportunity to distance themselves from that, and to make different choices. Research undertaken in the wake of the marshmallow experiment discussed in Chapter 6 showed that pre-schoolers whose parents help them to make independent decisions and try out new things for themselves are better able to steer their lives in the right direction as adults.


An uncomfortable skin


To my mind, ‘feeling comfortable in your own skin’ is a very apt phrase to describe a healthy relation between body and mind – or rather, between feeling and thinking. We owe this healthy relationship largely to our interactions with our parents. But, of course, the formation of our identity and the associated attitude towards our bodies also takes place outside of the family. Very early in children’s development, they encounter other figures who they look up to and from whom they adopt words and images. By extension, those figures do not even have to be made of flesh and blood; we adopt images and words presented to or imposed upon us by the broader outside world – that which I call ‘the Other’ in this book.

The expectations we are constantly confronted with result in a kind of collective education. Until recently, we received those influences via our formal education and culture. In the classroom, teachers presented their pupils with ideals which also appeared in ‘edifying’ literary works and films. For example, I had never encountered the word ‘racism’ until, as a child and quite by chance (I had already worked my way through the one shelf of children’s books in the local library), I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960). I still remember the outrage I felt at the unjust conviction of a black man. Nowadays, the focus is on the digital Other, as we are constantly exposed to a barrage of images. Screens are ubiquitous and even when we are not consciously watching them (perhaps especially when we are not watching them), we take on board the ideals they present us with.

The transition from the influence of others to the impact of ‘the Other’ is the transition from identifications within the lap of the family to those with a culturally dominant discourse. The influencing process remains the same, with the same risk of unhealthy effects as those associated with the initial development of our identity. Do the reflections I am presented with correspond more or less to my own feelings? Are the expectations they involve within my possibilities? To what extent do those images allow me to make choices? Identification with culturally dominant images can be congruent, or not. In the latter case, identification slides seamlessly into alienation, and we adopt ideas that do not tally with our own feelings. When the idea that women also have the ‘right’ to a career prevails in a society, that ‘right’ can become a prescriptive expectation. A young mother who would prefer to stop working for a protracted period to be with her baby may not do so because it is not what is expected. A generation ago, her mother would have faced precisely the opposite dilemma, since she would have been told that mothers don’t go out to work; they belong at home with their children.

The dangerous thing about ideological alienation is its insidiousness. The prevailing system we live in is so dominant that we no longer notice it; it determines our working lives, our relationships, our education, our recreation. The ubiquitous goal is growth. We even ‘invest’ in our relationships; children are expected to run their lives ‘like a business’; hobbies are only for old people, while I devote my free time putting in performances that I can then put out on social media. And more than anything else: modern-day alienation determines the way we relate to our own bodies.

I opened this book by pointing out that we adapt our body image as far as possible to the expectations of our environment, of the Other. There have always been fashion, hairstyles and makeup. The influence of the Other on our body image is literally superficial. Whenever discussion turns to the burkini, someone will always make a comparison with the monokini – the topless women’s swimsuit that was also often banned in the Sixties. Women should have the right to decide for themselves what they wear, is the argument. That’s all well and good. But is the same true of girls and young women who demand the ‘right’ to be anorexic, and now even promote it online through the pro-ana movement?

It is all too easy to say that women choose to wear a monokini, cover themselves with a burkini, or have an extremely thin body. More than anything, such ‘choices’ reflect the fears and desires of men, irrespective of whether they are Muslim fundamentalists, Western machos or politically correct pseudo-intellectuals. Such ‘choices’ are the effect of an oppression which is rendered all the more invisible by the fact that the victims identify with it. Sometimes, the influence of the Other is even more drastic, and people even damage their own bodies in a desperate attempt to live up to expectations. A ‘choice’ in favour of a breast augmentation, liposuction, or vaginoplasty, is also an attempt to mould women’s bodies forcibly into externally-imposed forms. In the field of plastic surgery, labial ‘correction’ is on the rise, and the explanation for this can once again be found in the desire to reflect images held up to us in the mirror – in this case images from internet pornography. A comparison with the religiously-motivated practice of female circumcision is obvious here. Some women are cut in order to make it impossible for them to enjoy sex, while others go under the knife in order to increase sexual satisfaction. Both are cases of women having to respond to an image that is expected of them by a dominant Other.

The Victorian corset was at least a visible straightjacket into which women’s bodies were squeezed during the day. The size-zero body ideal is an invisible corset, making it difficult to defend against. In the past twenty years, women have been forced into a straightjacket compared to which the Victorian corset pales into insignificance. When imposed ‘choices’ impact the body in a real way, we have reached the point where alienation becomes pathological. Choosing to wear a burkini is not the same as choosing to be circumcised, just as choosing to shave your pubic area is not the same as choosing to undergo vaginoplasty. Men are now heading in the same direction: eighty per cent of young males trim their pubic hair and a quarter shave completely. Urologists are receiving increasing requests for penis enlargement surgery and the use of anabolic steroids (hormones which are used illegally, mainly for fattening cattle) to promote large muscle growth has long-since ceased to be the exception.


‘My body doesn’t have the same ideas I do’


The words ‘my body doesn’t have the same ideas I do’ stem from the French cultural philosopher, Roland Barthes. In the same sentence he also states that pleasure comes about when the body begins to pursue its own ideas. The opposite is possibly even truer: pain and sickness are my body’s way of telling me that I am heading in the wrong direction. If I regularly suffer neck pain, or if my doctor tells me I am having tension-related headaches, then the message is that there is something wrong with the way I’m living my life. It is in all our interests to take our bodies seriously, especially when ‘my body doesn’t have the same ideas I do’. According to this reasoning, the ‘I’ is explicitly an alienated ‘I’ that has fallen into the trap of unhealthy living.

If I identify with – or more accurately: if I am alienated because of – images and ideals that are damaging for my body, my stomach will be the first part of my anatomy to register protest, long before I am consciously aware of what is happening. Our (under) belly is the area where we feel emotional responses physically. This wisdom is reflected in our use of language: we find things ‘difficult to stomach’, we ‘poo our pants’ with fear, we are told to trust our ‘gut feelings’. If we ignore these protests and carry on regardless, the signals will become increasingly urgent and will go from causing discomfort to causing pain, and eventually, sickness.

My body registers protest – it hurts. Should I pay attention to it? If I’m not well attuned to my body, I will not do so. Or even worse: in line with the principle of competition, I might even go one step further and regard the pain I’m feeling as one of the ‘sacrifices’ I have to make in order to be an ideal woman or man, as the price I have to pay for success. Such an interpretation of pain illustrates how alienation succeeds in making us ignore the obvious meaning of signals from our body, or even turn that meaning on its head. Seeing pain as an encouragement to continue even more rapidly down the path we have taken – it doesn’t get much more absurd than that.

The effects of alienation on our bodily appearance are by and large innocuous in comparison with its pathological effect on our inner lives. Research shows increasingly clearly that there is a link between stress and serious illness, as discussed at the end of Part I. Despite the fact that we are now living longer, healthier lives, people are developing more and more illnesses and disorders at a younger age, for apparently no obvious reason. We are unable to identify the causes for this because we are still far too keen to reason from an exclusively medical and biological point of view, and because we like to sort everything into neat, labelled little boxes, even when we have no understanding of what is going on. Perhaps especially when we do not understand what is happening; boxes create an illusion of security. As well as an increase in the number of people suffering from unexplained pain, we are also seeing rises in rates of obesity, diabetes and autoimmune diseases. On a mental-health level, depression and anxiety set the tone, together with a generalised ADHD-frenzy (we walk, speak, eat a great deal faster than the generation before us), which can suddenly flip to become a total loss of energy due to burn-out or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

These illnesses never appear out of the blue; they have a long preceding history, during which our bodies send out no shortage of signals to let us know we are making the ‘wrong’ choices, as individuals and as a society. However, just like some of the first-year medical students in the study at Johns Hopkins University (see Chapter 2), many people fail to hear their bodies’ signals and so also fail to heed them – and those people run a much higher risk of becoming sick later in life. I found the explanation for this in the work of the aforementioned John Bowlby, who described the way children learn to use ‘defensive exclusion’ in order to avoid experiencing their emotions consciously. As adults, they can silence those signals even more effectively with medication and alcohol. But our bodies cannot be silenced; a gut feeling turns into pain, and pain turns into disease, until we are forced to listen, or disappear altogether (usually in a hospital bed).

Being attuned to our bodies is a requirement for a good life.


Autonomy and imaginative resistance


When we get sick, we often resolve to take better care of our bodies, with eating more healthily and taking more exercise being the classic resolutions. Anyone who has tried this will inevitably realise that we rarely maintain such lifestyle changes for long. Such resolutions can even become part of the alienation process: I must live a better, healthier life; I must eat less fat and fewer carbs. Such resolutions have now also become examples of what Marcuse called repressive tolerance: what could be a mutiny against the system (we buy only healthy produce, from a real local farmer, who receives a fair price for that produce), is neatly transformed into a new and increasingly ‘morally imperative’ form of consumption (‘You buy organic produce, too, I presume?’). Over time, we fall back into our old patterns of behaviour.

If we really want to change, we have to make choices that go far beyond a New Year’s resolution to take more exercise or cut down on drinking. The choices we have to make are ones which impact our lifestyle and level of comfort. Do you really want to cycle to work every day (which almost goes without saying in the Netherlands; in Belgium, not so much)? And only put seasonal fruit and vegetables on your plate? Turn your smartphone off whenever you’re at home? Those choices are difficult enough, but they are peanuts compared to choices that involve ideology, social status and career. Everyone is in favour of social equality, until the taxman comes knocking. Many people say they would like to work less, and claim not to care about status and social position. Until they are forced to accept a drop in status by the umpteenth ‘reorganisation’ at the company where they work. Our self-knowledge often turns out to be an illusion.

Making different choices is not easy. The good news is that our society and the times we live in are among the first in which these choices are indeed open to us. Unfortunately, this freedom is restricted by a number of different factors.

One of those restrictions is, for the most part, general in nature, and therefore invisible: the alienation that is the subject of this chapter. The new restriction on freedom is the obligation to compete, even with ourselves, and mandatory pleonexia – the need to have constantly more and more. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa doesn’t hesitate to classify this as a totalitarian system, with increasing control mechanisms and the associated coercion.

The second restriction cannot be viewed separately from the first, but it is more individual in nature. It is concerned with obstacles connected to ourselves and our personal histories. Those who are born into a disadvantaged environment, those who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, their smartphones or a specific kind of relationship have highly limited options. Let me remind readers of the marshmallow experiment and the study by Emmy Werner in Hawaii. That illustrated the influence of environment on self-control and, in a broader sense, on a successful life. The same researchers also found that such an influence need not be permanent, and that people can change.

Making different choices begins with awareness, with the realisation that something is not right. We can then begin to look for the causes and determine which of them we can correct ourselves. In almost all cases, this boils down to a realisation about alienation effects. What alienating identity have we unwittingly adopted? And why? How can we change direction?

As I explained earlier, our identity is a construction in which we adopt what we are presented with (identification). At the same time, we are also able to distance ourselves from that and make our own choices (separation). We begin making choices very early in life; even as toddlers, we seek autonomy and the right to make our own decisions. As adults, we are all the more able to do this. The Flemish philosopher Kris Pint calls this imaginative resistance: we refuse to concur any longer with the images we are presented with, and in our minds we imagine different interpretations which suit us better. Those who may now be thinking that imagination is nothing but fantasy, and therefore insignificant, should remember the conversion and placebo effects. Imagination is an excellent starting point for change.

It is not easy, but it is possible. Personal history and background can be major obstacles; a fact which is often too easily dismissed. Only recently, I was told by a psychotherapist, filled with indignation, how little understanding her colleagues at the psychiatric hospital had for patients whose disorders are largely due to the environment they grew up in. She has managed to cast off that attitude; she belongs to the group of exceptions described by Werner in her study in Hawaii. Werner showed that one in three children from disadvantaged backgrounds still succeed in building a good life for themselves, with the most important deciding factor being the love and support they received from others. Sometimes, it is enough for them to have met one particular person. Any therapist can provide examples of such cases.

Change means distancing ourselves from the images we have been presented with and choosing interpretations which guarantee a good life. This can include taking a different attitude to work, or even changing jobs, as well as ending an unhealthy relationship and choosing a different partner. And most importantly, choosing to take a different attitude to our own bodies. I have already written about the fact that there is no such thing as original identity. Choosing better interpretations of who we want to be in the present and the future is better because that makes it possible for us to tune in better to our bodies.

We have no original identity. What we do have, however, is an original dividedness, firstly between ourselves and our bodies; secondly, between the different images that make up our identity, which come from others. In the ideal case, this will result in a personality akin to a polyphonic choir singing in harmony. In times of crisis, the notes become off-key. Precisely because we are divided, we are able to stand back from ourselves, to think about ourselves, to have a word with ourselves, and eventually to come to decisions to cast off certain interpretations which we no longer want.

This distance between ‘me’ and ‘myself’ allows people to choose new interpretations which can restore the harmony within the choir of the self. For that reason alone, we must cherish our dividedness. If we were totally at one with ourselves, that possibility would not exist.

Our inner choir cannot sing in harmony if we are not in tune – and that means primarily in tune with our own bodies. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Such attunement requires knowledge and skill; in this case, knowledge of what is good for us and what is bad. The Classical thinkers already knew it: knowing ourselves is the most important condition for caring for ourselves.


Sample translation by David Shaw