In the story of King Midas, everything the king touches turns to gold. At first, this seems like a boon, for this power would make him the richest man in the country. But turning everything he touched to gold would eventually make the king the most spiritually and emotionally poor man there can be. How do you eat food turned into metal, find fragrance in a gold flower, or receive love from a statue? More importantly, how do you follow God if your heart is full of greed?
This myth is about the dangers of psychological inflation. Psychological inflation occurs when an individual’s conscious identity (ego and the persona) becomes merged with an archetype (sub-personality) of the unconscious. That archetype could be the Self, or God, as was the case with King Midas, or any of a number of other “positive” archetypes such as the hero, sage, savior, healer, divine child, etc. People may also fall prey to an equally harmful negative archetype, such as the scapegoat, loser, failure, victim or pariah. These latter give rise to what is called a negative inflation. The following example will help to illustrate.
John had recently taken a management position at the advertising firm where he worked. Although he had no previous management experience, the owner of the firm had taken a liking to him and felt he had a promising future. John was excited by the opportunity, which would allow him a greater say in department decisions, a nice salary increase, and other perks. Upon starting at his new position, however, John’s personality began to change in subtle but significant ways. For example, he developed an air of superiority towards his peers. He became dismissive of their viewpoints, especially if they contradicted his own. His friends noticed him to be less playful and friendly. His sense of humor declined, particularly his ability to laugh at himself. John also began to exhibit a sense of entitlement. He gave himself permission to ignore some of the company rules, such as where employees could park, which he had always obeyed in the past.
As the months passed, John became more arrogant. He started thinking that he knew better than his far-more-experienced boss. His relationships with people became superficial and shallow. He did and said the right things, but seemed almost robotic as he did so. Every once in a while, he had the unpleasant sense that he was behaving in a phony and manipulative way towards others. He pushed these uncomfortable feelings aside by staying busy, drinking alcohol, and rationalizing to himself that he was really doing good, and that other people were just jealous of him.
John was in the ever-tightening grip of a “positive” ego inflation. Yet, because he worked in a company whose management mistook arrogance and competitiveness for competence, he progressed up the company ladder. The higher he climbed, however, the more the quality of his relationships and overall wellbeing plummeted. His alcohol use became more intense and compulsive. His marriage was on the brink of divorce. His true friends stopped coming by and his new friends weren’t really friends but drinking buddies.
As his life became more hollow, and his drinking got out of hand, John sank into a depression marked by moodiness and self-pity. The pendulum of his inflation had swung in the opposite direction. Instead of arrogance and an inflated view of his own abilities, he now imagined himself to be the worst husband and person alive. He indulged in a negative and overly critical self-appraisal. But his self-reproach and self-condemnation were as extreme in their negativity as his exaggerated self-esteem had been in its positivity. His pity-party was made even more pathetic–and dangerous–by his alcohol abuse. “I’m an awful husband. I don’t deserve my wife. Hell, I don’t deserve my life.” These are some of the things he was now saying to himself and others. Efforts to help him look at himself with greater objectivity were met with stubborn resistance. It seemed that if he couldn’t be beyond reproach, he would swim in a pool of self-reproach.
Two years after his promotion John entered an alcohol rehab center. The therapists there noted that although he appeared and thought himself miserable, there was an undercurrent of anger to his mood. They quickly noted that he resented looking at his arrogance and egocentricity. His self-criticism was so extreme, even he didn’t really believe it. In reality, his self-reproach had become a strategy of deception. It mimicked humility while actually serving to avoid an honest and direct look at his real attitudes of arrogance and phoniness.
Fortunately, the therapists and other patients at the rehab center saw through John’s games. They called John on his grandiosity and crashed his pity-party. Through direct and on-target confrontation, John’s egocentric defenses and strategies were dismantled. His power drive and controllingness were deconstructed, gradually returning him to a more grounded and authentic relationship to the world and other people. Humbled at depth, he began to feel more real and like himself again.
John’s story illustrates many of the dynamics of psychological inflation. A positive inflation often results when the ego has been appointed a task that exceeds its current abilities or sense of self. Instead of receiving the task with objective humility, it employs a defense of inflated grandiosity. Rather than feel unworthy or overwhelmed, it assumes an attitude of arrogance and over-confidence. It becomes controlling as a way to avoid feeling impotent, vulnerable or insecure. When this happens, the personality is increasingly ruled by the power drive of the ego. Then, when life events poke holes in the ego’s inflated sense of self, deflated self-esteem often swing to the opposite pole of negative inflation. This is the “I’m worthless,” or “I can’t do anything right” standpoint. This orientation is not too different from a temper tantrum. Called on its arrogance, the ego tries to hide behind a false humility, or false contrition.
Both positive and negative inflations are postures adopted by the ego to deflect a humbling truth or forestall an imperative for change. In alchemical terms, inflation is a defense against coagulatio, the process of coming down to earth and experiencing life’s constraints and your own limitations. Ultimately, positive inflation is a denial of your humanness in favor of an exaggerated superiority. Negative inflation, on the other hand, is a false or phony humility. In both cases the ego is exalting itself, latching onto extremes in order to avoid and defend against a far more real and painful truth. That truth is that you are human, incomplete and fallible. You have missed the mark, and it is time to make certain changes in your life.
Like Midas with his golden touch, this extreme form of egocentricity turns everything around you into an inanimate object. This is because you are seeking to control rather than to relate. You become increasingly manipulative, a persona cut-off from your soul. There is no genuine caring or love because an ego wedded to its persona loves only itself. It does not know, and cannot know, authentic human relationship.