A short while ago, I was sitting in a session with a young adult male with more than 18 months sober. He is in counseling to work through some stuck points in his recovery that have recently popped up. He is an avid member of a 12-Step fellowship and maintains a relationship with the alumni association of the facility he attended for treatment. On the surface he is doing everything an addiction professional could dream of, yet he is unhappy, restless and irritable.
One of the factors that became evident through his assessment is that he is on constant guard as to where he falls on the “coolness scale” with all those around him. He has an obsessive preoccupation with how others perceive him. He picks his sexual partners, friends, even acquaintances through a rating scale based on power and dominance. The image he projects to the world is this carefully crafted God among men. “I want to be the guy that guys want to be and girls want to be with, that everyone looks at and knows I have it going on,” he remarked one day.
I looked at him and said, “That certainly seems like a lot of work; I think it is sad.” He looked at me dazed and confused and asked, “What do you mean?” I simply said, “It makes me sad that you don’t have relationships—you have hostages.”
I explained it using addiction-related terms with which he was familiar. Validation is the drug and our hostages are our dealers. We seek out the sick and suffering in order to consummate a parasitic relationship. Sometimes it is sexual in nature; however, it is not about the sex. It is about the tortuous need for validation—soothing the unquenchable thirst reflected in the question, “Am I OK?”
In an overt sense it looks like: Boy sees girl and flirts with her. Girl flirts back; boy receives validation and is elated. He is on top of the world, euphoric with his recent dose of validation. He has received validation of his self-created false self. He does not even need to have sex, but sometimes does in order secure a new validation dealer. Boy says to himself, “I am the man.” When things go wrong, it looks like: Boy sees girl and flirts with her. Girl does not flirt back; boy is rejected and receives validation that he is not OK. Boy is at an all-time low, dejected from the rejection. He just received confirmation that he is his unworthiness. Boy says, “See, I knew I was crap.” His restlessness increases as his need for validation, dressed up as sexual frustration, increases. This feeling of powerlessness fuels a need for power and control.
In a similar but less overt manner: Boy walks into room with other boys and instantly goes into competition mode. Who is the best-looking? Who has the cool factor? Who has slept with the most women? Who can bench the most weight? Who is the most outgoing? And the most important question of all: “How do I rank?” It is all about power and domination.
Like a lion in the Serengeti stalking his prey, he goes after what he perceives as a weak, easy target in his quest for validation. The need for validation creates the drive to be seen as special. Being one among the crowd will never do for our validation junkie. The most skilled of these addicts can relate to fitting into any environment. His peer group and environment define him.
Being everyone but oneself
As we were talking, my client identified with my description, saying that in his closet he has many different types of clothes from all the different types of groups he would hang out with. He knew how to dress to fit in with the preps, or the street kids. He even had a serious hat collection that allowed him to fit in with a group of guys in his sober living environment. These are all the paraphernalia of unworthiness. The internal narrative sounds like, “I on my own am simply not enough.”
Searching, yearning, seeking, running, reaching, craving: These are all tools the ego utilizes to act out our unworthiness. In a culture of unworthiness we are inundated with messages such as “You complete me” and “Average is the enemy.” When we think of ego in Western culture we think of our good friend arrogance. In Eastern culture we are taught that ego is a two-sided coin. On one side we have arrogance and on the other side we have unworthiness. Both are equal manifestations of an inauthentic self.
It is not uncommon to hear this played out in the rooms of 12-Step meetings: “I am an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” From an Eastern philosophy this is the ego. We are all very familiar with arrogance or the puffing up of ourselves; however, we are less familiar with the other side of the coin, our unworthiness. Unworthiness is the diminishing, contracting and/or covering up of our authentic self. In my work with addiction and persons in recovery, I have found that we use arrogance to cover up our unworthiness. The problem with this is that we actually believe we are our unworthiness. As insight increases, we recognize arrogance as a mask that we use to shield ourselves from the world.
The fact is that neither is true. We are not our arrogance, nor are we our unworthiness. Both are masks we have created in order to fill a need or void. We use arrogance as a coping strategy to deal with the pathology of unworthiness. “If I cover up what I mistakenly believe about myself, maybe they will never know; maybe I won’t be found out.” As with most things, unworthiness is most dangerous when it is unconscious. The more arrogant a person is, the greater the unworthiness—one simply does not exist without the other.