The Alter Ego and Mental Health

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

From having fascinating and meaningful conversations to giving timely advice, or having moments of light humor, we’ve all pretty much had a confab with ourselves. And sometimes not just in our minds, but out loud.

Talking to oneself is an intuitive concept to most people; for when you need to psych yourself up for that group presentation, or a musical audition, or just talking yourself up to approach that girl that you secretly admire. The range of usefulness of this habit is not limited to just public situations or socially demanding ones, but even in dealing with personal issues, like making the healthy choice for your next lunch meal, or having a ‘sit-down’ with yourself and deciding you need to get out more, and it is normal, even healthy.

But what does having self-directed discussions have to do with cultivating a better state of mind, or more effectively, dealing with anxious thoughts? According to this research on mental disorders, anxiety is a normal bodily reaction to stress.

When we’re stressed, our brains release stress hormones that essentially tell our bodies something bad or scary is about to happen, and when suffering from anxiety, the rush of hormones is exponentially increased to a state where we can feel overwhelmed. You can read more about the effects of anxiety on the brain here. So how can we leverage the alter ego and the whole concept of talking to oneself to combat anxiety?

Who is your “Spiderman”?

Photo by Stanley Shashi on Unsplash

An alter ego, Latin for “Other I”, can be described as a second self, usually created with different personalities and behavior, and one that trumps the version of ‘self’. Like the comical Bruce Banner alongside The Incredible Hulk, or Peter Parker and The Spiderman. But we can’t all burgeon up into green monsters or intentionally get bitten by a radioactive spider, on accident. (I know you’ve probably tried it, I know I have. As a kid, though. Maybe it just wasn’t ‘radioactive’ enough) For most of us, all we get is an inner voice.

The concept of an alternate ego implies that there is…an ego, so to say. For instance, in a scenario where you want to try skating, for the first time, your ego would probably say something like: “You can’t do this, it’s risky and you’ll end up getting hurt”, or “What if you look stupid? People will laugh at you!”. And whilst this might be true, your alternate self, the voice inside your head, would say something like: “If it doesn’t work, at least I’ll know I gave it a shot”.

Your alter ego will implicitly nudge you towards something better. These self-directed discussions can also be directed in the third person. “Would Harry like to try skating?”, for example. Unless, of course, you’re Harry, and are already good at skating, then you can try that with something else.

The Meats and Potatoes of It

Photo by Dipesh Shrestha on Unsplash

Fostering an alter ego can be an inordinate form of ‘distancing’ from the self, as it involves taking a step back from our immediate feelings and thoughts to allow us to perceive a situation more dispassionately. This takes us away from the more immersive, overwhelmed ego to the separate essence of our alter ego, and can help walk us through the sentiments in the third person; a ‘David feels…’, in the place of ‘I feel…’, for example.

These findings suggest that; the use of third-person to reference the immersive thoughts makes a subsequent active stressor seem less personally relevant, thereby leading to lower task engagement, and without devaluing the relevance of the ego. In other words, it helps you find yourself, without losing who you are.

However, if you’re anything like I am, anxiety and successive overwhelming thoughts hardly give us the chance to think clearly, let alone find one’s alter ego, and you may need to involve a cooling-down process, to give time to your second self to get on-call without going through the ramification of a melt-down. Now, this part is can be different for every other person, we have different things that calm us down, people, places, or even phrases. We could let these things or people linger in our minds for a while, maybe reduce the massive immersion, to a somewhat benign state.

It might also be healthy to give names to your alter ego, based on their personality or behavior. Of course, giving your other self, technically just you, another name, does put a blur on the ‘weird’ line. But that does sound like something my ego would say, no?

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