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Portraits of the imperious self (5): the imperious self is faceless

Portraits of the imperious self 5

This article is part of our series entitled “Portraits of the imperious self”:
► you may read the general presentation of the series here: Portraits of the imperious self (1): an ethics of transformation
► to view all the articles of the series, see: Portraits of the imperious self

The imperious self can be anywhere: in our negative actions but also in our seemingly most noble behaviour. Often, the “good deed” we accomplish actually results from an impulse of our imperious self. In such cases, it is not the action itself that will help us identify the mark of the imperious self, but the manner in which the action is accomplished, the underlying intention and emotions. This is an important issue. The imperious self knows very well that once our inner evolution has reached a certain level, it can no longer present itself in the guise of basic anti-ethical impulses such as theft, aggression, verbal violence and so on, that are easily detected and immediately rejected by our soul’s immune system. Consequently, it will often present itself in the guise of actions that are not intrinsically illicit or that may even be considered very positive, but that one will carry out with negative intentions or in an exaggerated and harmful manner: the fake piety of the hypocrite, the feigned generosity of the one who gives to charity while making sure that it does not go unnoticed, the false rectitude of the one who looks down on those who are not on the “right path”, the faux virtuousness of the one who touts ethical or divine principles for material gain, the sham moral outrage of the one who actually seeks to harm someone, the fictitious altruism of the one who drowns others under gifts and acts of kindness only to increase his ascendency over them, and so on.

The more developed one’s sound reason, the greater one’s spiritual responsibility. Thus, a negative act or thought toward another person that is not deemed blameworthy at a given stage in the process of spiritual perfection can be counted as a misdeed at a higher stage. For instance, early in the process of spiritual perfection, one may not be held accountable for unrealized negative thoughts, but at more advanced levels, these very thoughts will be counted against us.

Bahram Elahi, Fundamentals of the Process of Spiritual Perfection: A Practical Guide, Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Book Publishing, 2022, chap. 11.

The voice of the imperious self is therefore not always easy to detect in the inevitable inner dialogs that precede our ethical decisions.

A reckless driver broke the rear-view mirror off my car and continued without stopping. He was driving a commercial van with the name of his business in view, so I found his phone number in no time and called him to demand payment for the damages. I didn’t have any doubt about the legitimacy of my claim as several people witnessed the scene and offered to testify if needed. The reckless driver was extremely rude and aggressive on the phone, and to be honest threatening. Here is the inner dialog that took place within me after this disheartening experience:

—Can you believe that guy? Such a horrible character! Now, he’s going to pay for that. I’m sure he doesn’t have insurance. I have witnesses and he was totally at fault; I definitely have a solid case against him.
—Forget it! Really, he’s too unpleasant. It’s best not to ever have to deal with him anymore.
—Yes, but he still has got to pay. A rear-view mirror is not cheap. And did you hear the way he spoke to me?
—Oh, come on. The insurance will cover it. I can say I didn’t see it happening. And after all, I do earn a good living.
—Ok, so you are going to let this creep humiliate you and not do a thing about it? You’re gonna let this guy get away with terrorizing people? This will only encourage him to go on intimidating people to get his way. Why should he stop if it works so well?
—Alright, so he wasn’t decent about all this, but if I report this to the police it might have serious consequences for him, he could lose his business. Does he really deserve that for what he did to me? Besides, when I was on the phone with him, I heard children’s voices in the background. He probably has a family. Maybe sometimes you just have to let go of selfish interests and have an open heart even to those who harm you. It’s nothing serious, after all, it’s only a rear-view mirror…

From the outside, it is difficult here to tell definitively which of the two voices is that of the imperious self. Both sides have their arguments based on perfectly legitimate ethical principles: it is our duty to defend our rights and the rights of society when it is within our power to prevent someone from continuing to do harm. On the other hand, it is also important to be able to forgive and renounce a right when we can. The solution to unmasking the imperious self is in sounding out the emotions and feelings that accompany our thoughts, the deep and underlying tendencies that make one side or the other seem to come more naturally. I have to analyze myself and see whether I am angry and looking for reasons to justify my impulse for revenge, or on the contrary I feel too lazy to bother with complicated paperwork, or else if I am simply afraid of conflicts. The job is not an easy one, even less so as the various feelings, including contradictory ones, tend to get all mixed up. In any case, putting up a fight will consist in taking the path that will require the most effort on my behalf—to force myself to engage in a conflict, or on the contrary, to rein in my desire to crush the other person—while trying to respect the objective rights of all parties.


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18 comments

  1. L Mar 31, 2024 12:03 am 1

    Thank you so much for this precious reminder of how crucial but virtually undetectable our true intentions are.

  2. Jo Mar 31, 2024 9:07 am 2

    Brilliant article! It came exactly at a time when most needed. It’s reassuring to read someone else’s experience of the imperious self. It’s sure is an entity most difficult to manage. Thank you!!

  3. Tom Mar 31, 2024 9:52 am 3

    Distance helps me to see better.

    Thank you for this advice: In any case, putting up a fight will consist in taking the path that will require the most effort on my behalf.

    So many times a day I get involved in an inner dialog and am bombarded with many faceless thoughts – especially when emotions come into play. Sometimes I am able to develop a clearer view with the help of distance. Distance can mean discussing the situation with my wife and listen to her view, but it can also mean taking a look from the outside – as if I were giving advice to a friend about an unpleasant incident. But pausing and not reacting impulsively to the first thoughts and arguments is already a challenge for me – that I first have to win (a fight in taking the path for pausing, first).

    1. Ia Apr 01, 2024 5:42 am 3.1

      Yes. Pausing first.

  4. Azar Mar 31, 2024 10:43 am 4

    Agressivity and revenge are matters of imperious self, and I wonder how can we defend social rights. Is there any difference between agression and perseverance?

    1. A. Apr 01, 2024 3:47 am 4.1

      >Is there any difference between agression and perseverance?

      If the person with the broken rear-view mirror does all that she/he can to make the driver pay for it to protect society by teaching this person a lesson, it would seem like an appropriate behavior and intention. After all, breaking a rear-view mirror is not something that will end up on someone’s criminal record and lead to a business closing down.

  5. Mahnaz Mar 31, 2024 2:57 pm 5

    It’s so true, I loved it. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Mini Mar 31, 2024 4:23 pm 6

    Very interesting topic. I believe it’s possible to carry out the same action with varying intentions. Take, for instance, the scenario of an accident where the driver should shift her focus from seeking revenge to aiding society by reporting the other driver’s misconduct. This shift in intention may seem subtle, but it holds the potential to yield significantly different spiritual outcomes.

    1. Ia Apr 01, 2024 5:45 am 6.1

      This seems to be the response to my question. But being aware of one’s intention is not always clear when one is in an emotional overdrive or confronted with a strong character weakness.

      1. Mini Apr 02, 2024 9:42 pm 6.1.1

        I agree, it’s not easy to know what our real intention is, but if we are sincere, God will help us to know. I think what Tom suggested: “Distance and getting other people’s opinions “ can be really helpful.

  7. Yan Apr 01, 2024 12:28 am 7

    Amazing article, deep and detailed account of an inner conflict.

    I find myself in such inner conflicts from time to time when I’m lucky, and perhaps most of the other time it goes unnoticed!

    When I find myself in an inner-conflict, the biggest dilemma for me is the fact that both sides of the argument sound legitimate – not only materially but more so spiritually – each referencing particular sayings or concept! This makes it harder and harder for me to decide which one is my ego and which one is my inner guide. However, sometimes I notice that deep inside me, I know the right answer, as if something was yelling that one path is clearly better than the other, but also that path is usually the harder path, on which I should fight my particular character weaknesses (and that’s exactly why – by definition – it’s the harder path).

    After I do my due diligence to think logically about the matter, using my sound reason, if I am still in doubt (to decide which choice is the correct choice) I reframe the problem, asking myself a series of questions as follows:

    1- If this was a multiple choice, the correct answer of which would determine my spiritual future (i.e. acceptance to stay in the inter-wold or rejection) and I had to take an educated guess between A or B which one would I choose considering my lifetime package of in-vivo experiences, in-vitro learnings, self knowledge, weaknesses and strengths?

    2- If this was my last test and last day on earth, and I would want to make sure that I act according to His satisfaction, which choice would I make, A or B?

    3- I assume that I made the wrong choice, and it’s my day of Accounting, and they are reviewing my actions, and they are telling me: “after these many years on earth and with these many learning opportunities, and knowing your weaknesses, how come you didn’t notice that you should have made choice A over B, that was so clear”! And then I reflect on which choice would have been that clear? (Sometimes it is easier for me to find my answer through reverse-engineering!)

    4- I remind myself: “The tests that a student of spirituality … is confronted with are always based on his or her weak points.” (Practical Guide Ch3, and Āsār ol-Haqq, vol. 2, saying 50.) and then I ask myself which choice would have triggered my weakness more than the other?

    Going through this series of questions, allow me to take the matter more seriously, sensitively, and to stimulate more self-aware thinking.

    At the end, I tell myself that if I performed my reasonable duty of care to decide, to the best of my current knowledge, and still make the wrong decision, He is merciful and forgiving, and He knows how hard I tried to make the right choice. Just as lawyers or physicians, could still make a mistakes, even after performing their due diligence.

    1. Bob May 30, 2024 6:49 am 7.1

      Excellent article with lots of food for thought.
      Thank you for a very useful list of questions that highlight a clearcut thought process that I need to start using. I agree that sometimes these conflicts go unnoticed, but as we advance, they seem to bubble up to the surface more and more, which means more effort is needed and I need to take responsibility for even the smallest of my actions.

  8. A. Apr 01, 2024 3:35 am 8

    Thank you for this article which clearly illustrates the subtle aspects of the imperious self’s arguments. I believe I was confronted with a situation where the imperious self used ethical arguments, in the context of my professional activity.

    Here is a brief summary: although I am in medical sales, my professional activity requires me to organize events/conferences where doctors share their clinical experiences with other colleagues. These peer2peer contacts greatly help sell my products. However, the organization of these events is very complicated and convoluted because there are dozens of internal procedures to follow.

    Last year, during this work, I made (unintentional) errors and this earned me the anger of 2 colleagues. They even started criticizing me in front of everyone (in my presence) and this happened several times. At the beginning I told myself that I somehow deserved this criticism and that this was the price to pay to equalize the rights that had been infringed.

    However, after a while, I realized that this reasoning came from my imperious self and my reluctance to defend myself. Instead, I should have defended myself while trying to find a solution to the fact of having infringed on the rights of others. But we should not allow ourselves to be continually publicly humiliated without saying anything. So, the little voice that at the beginning told me “defend yourself!” and at the same time try to do something to obtain forgiveness from the people whose rights you have wronged” was that of my soul. While the one that told me: “don’t do anything, because they are right and you have infringed on their rights” was that of my imperious self.

  9. Ia Apr 01, 2024 5:37 am 9

    It’s not easy. I understand that my emotional response to a situation is an indicator of the imperious self and that it is important to “unpack” that to see what character weak point(s) led to/created that imperious self, but my emotions can also sometimes be legitimate or at least understandable? Even if I see what the underlying weak point is.
    The example I have in mind is from a week ago where I was attacked personally and professionally by a young person in my charge. I felt I was dealing with someone very strong who was systematically turning everything I said around to use against me (in the way “manipulators” or “narcissists” do). For example: “Your behavior is inappropriate”led to “No! YOUR behavior is inappropriate!”, followed by personal and professional insults. My emotional response was fear because of the relentlessness of the person and the power of her personality. I felt as if I was receiving physical blows. I sent her out of the room (where she went on to disparage me in public in another space.) Trembling, I had difficulty resuming my activities but was still able to reason and hear other people comment on what had happened.
    I know that my weakness is fear of judgment and fear of being invalidated and that that can lead me to being more affected than another person would when someone attacks me. I wrote a report about the incident in detail which led to the young person’s expulsion for one day from the education facility. There will also be a trace of this incident in her files (which she claimed meant nothing to her as she could not care less what my opinion of her was.)

    My fear of doing the right thing or not doing the right thing could have led me to file a report as well as to not file a report.

    At another incident with the same person, I chose not to file a report that led to an attack from a colleague accusing me of being a “people pleaser” and wanting young people to like me instead of doing my duty. But in this case I felt it was my duty but also I just could not accept to see this person in my class room as she scared me and threatened the peace of mind of others as well.

    I know I have this weakness and I know I have to work on it. But I also can’t deny that at the moment I am where I am and I can’t pretend to feel ok in the presence of a person who attacks my legitimacy as a person and a professional. Maybe I can see the situation as a way to prevent such a situation in the future by really being firm and putting a stop to irrational talk before it leads to such extremes. Maybe I can learn to be more vigilant and notice aspects of my character that are weak or fragile and find strategies to not succumb to them and the behaviors or thoughts that they trigger. I don’t know yet. All I know for now is that there are various situations where fear of doing wrong or of “messing up” (allowing myself to be scammed on the phone also for example) that trigger strong emotional responses where I then lash out or freeze and become catatonic and discouraged.

    So maybe I can conclude that the first step is to NOTICE certain patterns and try and see what I can improve to prevent situations from escalating in the first place.

    1. A. Apr 03, 2024 5:54 am 9.1

      Very interesting, thank you!

  10. Alex Apr 02, 2024 1:54 pm 10

    Very intriguing subject matter and comments following the article! Thank you for that.
    The more learned our sound reason becomes, the more complex these inner conflicts will be. Recently, I faced a dilemma regarding a case of heredity. My first impulse was to let go of my claim. Just like some of the examples mentioned before, I realized that if l did that, I’d be feeding my passiveness and fear of conflict. This is usually followed by negative thoughts about myself, my decision, and the other parties involved.
    A long and hearty inner-conflict started within the voices residing in my head, far more than what the issue was worth. I tried hard to push my emotions and see things for what they are. I finally came up with a result that was a compromise and felt correct. Only then, I put it in action.
    The interesting part is that, in retrospect, I think that I got it completely WRONG. I truly think that I should have gone with my first impulse, but then try hard to fight the negative voices of regret.
    But, because of what went into this process, my blaming conscience is at peace. I know that my intention was in the right place, but my wisdom not so much. I am ok with that because I think the inner-conflict itself is what provides us with the learning moment.
    My new red-flag is, in times that I’m thinking of an action to make a point to others to prevent them from faltering in future, it’s most likely my ego holding the talking stick.

  11. Yan Apr 05, 2024 7:18 pm 11

    IA, I agree with you “one’s intention is not always clear when one is in an emotional overdrive or confronted with a strong character weakness”. I have many experiences confirming that what I thought was my good intention, as a matter of fact was coming from my imperious self and character weakness, however, I only learned and was able to confirm that after I took an in-vivo approach in favour of one or the other. Sometimes even took years for me to learn that certain intention of mine wasn’t as “good” as I thought. However, the more I’m attentive, trying to decode the signs of His Guidance in my daily life, the faster I can evaluate the true essence of my intentions in particular situation or overall.

  12. Brenda Jun 14, 2024 11:48 am 12

    Reading this article again is so interesting because it makes me rethink a situation I found myself in recently at work where I made the decision NOT to follow through with legitimate consequences for someone under my authority because of the emotional state I was in that led me to believe I would be seeking revenge if I did. I remembered the anecdote in which Ostad goes out of his way to help clear the young man from having a police record after slapping a respected merchant, whereas this young man betrayed him after having had his rights to his inheritance restored when an aunt refrained from relinquishing them to him.

    This semester, a student I had invested considerable time in to help apply for scholarships and special programs for deserving students, started to reveal a side I had not perceived earlier on. While having the reputation as an outstanding student, he began to distort my words and make accusations against me regarding assignments and exams, addressing me in messages with an authoritarian and superior tone “instructing me” on what I was to do and also making comments on my person. The levels of inappropriateness of what the student thought he had the right to do vis à vis me were astonishing. With the self-assurance of a student who knows he is seen by all teachers as an honors student he decided my demands were not legitimate and therefore did not respect them (copying a ChatGPT response on one assignment and cheating on the final exam). Though I did not sanction these faults numerically, and pretended I did not notice, I was bent on making a public statement in the final class council on his harassing messages and attempts at intimidation, and was going to oppose the distinctions of excellence that he was going to receive to crown his report card leading him brilliantly to year 12.

    I was torn between the sense that I had to treat all student the same and therefore make his behavior known which would exclude him from receiving honors or distinctions this semester, and feeling that if I did say something, I would be acting out of vengeance.

    My emotions were so strong not only because of the objective bad behavior but also because I really “was” afraid of him. His mocking glance and tone while absurd were so righteous, I was disgusted. …I really did want to say out loud in front of the committee and in front of him (he was representing the students of the class at the meeting) that I opposed all distinctions because of his menacing behavior toward me. My voice would have been determining.

    The night before the meeting I asked God for guidance. I wanted to act in accordance to my dignity, duty and rights, and at the same time not fall prey to my imperious self.

    During the dreaded meeting, with this student glaring at me victoriously, I suddenly had the inspiration to leave the meeting before we came down the list of students to his name. I excused myself to the principal with the excuse of having an outstanding obligation (as did another colleague surprisingly at that very moment) and left the meeting. I had found a way to circumvent my imperious self, or rather, that I was guided to take the best action I was capable of in that situation.

    I cannot say I am 100% sure though that I did the right thing, perhaps 79%. Maybe in the future I will get more clarity.

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