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Eleanor Rigby Statue in Liverpool

Like The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” you may experience self-alienation as a feeling of intense loneliness or inner emptiness. (photo: Erik Ribsskog)

Inner emptiness, the inability to tolerate being alone are symptomatic of a lack of self-knowledge, a poorly defined sense of self. Sufferers often describe the chronic condition as a feeling of loneliness. People with this problem usually have a desperate need for the regard and affection of others, said regard and affection providing the means to ward off, or at least ameliorate, painful self-dislike. Since they cannot accept themselves, they have a powerful need to forget themselves, to get out of themselves, to do something, anything, which will promote self-forgetfulness, self-oblivion. Psychologists claim that a lack of happy family life in childhood may lay the foundations for such a plight. A child unloved by its parents never learns to love itself.

Psychologist Karen Horney writes, “In all neurotic developments the alienation from self is the nuclear problem.” In the neurotic, “the emphasis shifts from being to appearing.”

Alienation from self has two aspects. One is the problem with self-hate or self-loathing. Here, sufferers have decided that some qualities they possess are unacceptable. They quite literally reject themselves. These qualities are mostly character traits, but may extend to ideas in the case of those who hold ideological positions. For example, someone who has taken up leftist ideals may reject their original, and probably authentic, conservative values. Rejecting your own authentic values means rejecting yourself. You have shifted from “being [yourself] to appearing [to be something different].”

The other aspect of self-alienation arises from a lack of self-knowledge. Those who do not know themselves, or who have a poorly organized sense of self, have to live by an arbitrarily adopted set of values that probably have little or nothing to do with their genuine worldview. These individuals literally have no option but to shift from “being to appearing.” Without the inner compass of a genuine sense of self, life becomes a nightmare of trying to stay on the “right” side of every issue or trend. Worse, with no sense of self to present to the world, the person’s artificial idealized image becomes all-important. Self-destructive ego puffery replaces the pursuit of genuine goals. For the sake of enhancing their image, these unfortunate people are always trying to do things they do not really want to do. They are always trying to trick others into seeing them in a flattering light.

In either case, the self-alienation causes extreme psychological pain. The remedy is to embark on a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. The sufferer must find the real self, and by accepting it, achieve authenticity. This will end the setting of undesired goals and eliminate the need consciously to maintain a false persona. The elimination of the inner division or conflict, the eradication of the discrepancy between authentic and false selves, allows a person to be wholly sincere.