Losing your self for a moment: Ontological Insecurity

Nov 6, 2021


 …Following my recent post on “ontological security,” I sketch out the other side of the spectrum, or the accompanying concept: ontological insecurity.

Most basically, if our sense of ontological security in the world relies on our belief that we know ourselves, and we can recognize who and what we are by noticing the characteristics of our somewhat stable boundaries (like our bodies, our what we take to be our personality), then it follows that ontological insecurity occurs when we lose our self-knowledge, become disoriented or feel unbalanced in our everyday sense of self, or when our recognition of ourselves falters, breaks down, or is disrupted.

To explore this, I go back to a core question of the ages:How do we recognize ourselves? This basic question of the Self has received centuries of coverage in philosophy, and in the 20th century, psychology and sociology. Skipping over most of this legacy of ideas, I take up the question as a matter of symbolic interactionism. 

Ontological insecurity is associated with deep anxieties. But these need not be long-lived. A sensation of not knowing, or a loss of cohesion and stability can be momentary, like when you feel dizzy because you’re off balance. Once you stabilize, the feeling passes. Or it can occur with age, as the image in the mirror no longer resembles what we expect to see. It can occur when we are misrecognized, or when we disassociate, a common outcome following trauma whereby we feel foreign to ourselves and for various reasons and in various different ways, disconnect from our feelings, memories, perceptions, or identity. For most people untroubled by severe psychosis, as Laing would say (1959), ontological breaks like these are temporal and ad hoc.

Whether long-lived or momentary, ontological insecurity is associated with intense existential disorientation. To explore how this is connected to echolocation, it’s useful to go back to a core question such as: How do we recognize ourselves? This basic question of the Self has received centuries of coverage in philosophy, and in the 20th century, phenomenology, psychology and sociology. For example, John Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir explored the concept of ontological security through existentialist philosophy and phenomenology. The existentialists were particularly fascinated by the ‘pervasive anxiety’ that comes with building selfhood though the challenge of innumerable ‘either/or’ choices at every step of one’s life, an idea Satre borrowed from Kierkegaard, as Sarah Bakewell notes in her fantastic book, At the Existentialist Cafe (2016). Sartre’s existentialism focuses on the dizziness that accompanies this continual making of the Self. This dizziness is akin to vertigo, except that ‘[i]t is not the fear of falling so much as the fear that you can’t trust yourself not to throw yourself off. Your head spins; you want to cling to something, to tie yourself down—but you can’t secure yourself so easily against the dangers that come with being free’ (Bakewell, 2016, p. 19).

This sensation of vertigo and dizziness as an outcome of excessive freedom of will is a typically delightful overstatement of the existentialists. But the anxiousness arising from a sensation of vertigo can also come from being unable to orient yourself. There is a grounding stability in knowing where one is positioned in relation to other entities or elements of the environment. The feeling of being rooted or stable is not necessarily one of being entirely still or unmoving, however, since that does not describe the human, physically or mentally. We are in constant action and reaction, moving through the lifeworld. Tia DiNora (2000, 84), in describing the interaction between people and music as a form of attunement and orienting, suggests ‘that the creaturely ability to locate and anticipate environmental features engenders a kind of corporeal or embodied security, by which I mean the “fitting in” or attunement with environmental patterns, fostered by a being’s embodied awareness of the materials and properties that characterize his or her environment.’ DiNora also suggests that we can become unstable when we lose this attunement to the rhythms of environments. Using the example of someone skipping rope when there’s no comprehensible timing of the rope hitting the pavement, DiNora describes the process of searching for and failing to ‘locate and appropriate… resources with or against which to “gather oneself” into some kind of organized and stable state’ (84). This ‘embodied insecurity’ is in contrast to ‘embodied security’, which comes from ‘one’s ability to fit in, or situate oneself, bodily’ (DiNora 2000, 84).

The anxiety of ontological insecurity manifests in different ways. In my studies, participants used the word ‘disorientation’ frequently. One of the people who participated in my studies of digital media and everyday life, for example, remarked (in a 2014 autoethnographic video log at the outset of the 24-hour media fast):

It has not been fun. It is only 10 am and I don’t know how I will make it through an entire day. I literally don’t know what to do. And I don’t mean because I don’t have things to do. But because I am disoriented. I just don’t know why I feel this way.’

Another participant noted in 2015:

I feel disoriented, apart from everyone and everywhere. How could I be so addicted that I can’t be offline even for a day?

Disorientation can be understood as it connects to the act of orienting. Orienting, if you think about navigating or wayfinding, is generally accomplished through a process of oscillating from near to far, inward-out and then outward-in orientations, or looking out toward the horizon and back at one’s feet to see where one is placed, physically.

For my participants, this sensation of disorientation references more than simply being absent from the digital social context, it indicates not knowing where they are, or being nowhere, unable to place or position the Self on a map anywhere, or perhaps even find the map.

Slightly different than the sensation of disorientation, my participants also felt general nervousness, anxiety, and self-doubt about the existence of the ‘Self for Others’ (a concept that Laing and other symbolic interactionists would use to emphasize that the Self is relational, social, and often far more other-referential than self-referential). A 2019 participant noted in a videolog:

I feel nervous. It’s so quiet in here and I keep turning over my phone to see if I have any notifications. Then I remember that I’m supposed to be on a media fast and I turned off notifications. Why do I care so much whether I get a notification? I think it is because it assures me that people are out there or that I’m still in here [points at their own chest in video].

Drawing on the work of existential philosopher Rollo May, Gustafsson and Krickel-Choi note that anxiety is different from fear, ‘Anxiety is internal. Because anxiety strikes at the foundation of the personality, it is not possible to “stand outside” of it and treat it as an object to run away from’ (2020, 886; my emphasis added).

This is useful to help us understand at least one reason that the anxiety people feel from disconnecting from social media seems so deep. Anxiety is a fairly common case in point. Loss of connection with others seems to remind us that we require Other for assurance that we, ourselves, exist.

More precisely, as with many participants in my studies, this is not so much a loss of connection as a loss of the continuous responses from others. This absence is felt as a loss of multiple, rather than single feedback loops, which suggests the importance of the continuous stream of calls and responses. The visual image is not so much an individual having a controlled interaction with a single other person, but a person in a naturalized, tacit, ongoing process of continuously marking the sociality of Self by bouncing signals off multiple objects in immediate or ongoing contexts. Until it is absent, this phenomenon of being constantly unstable is not apparent

Ontological insecurity is continually present in greater or lesser degrees, even if it is neither recognized nor named. In a sense, it is at the core of what prompts us to continue to search for identity, which could be oversimplified as a continuous, daily, moment by moment effort to answer to the questions, “Who am I?” or perhaps more related to the fact that identity is always centrally about sociality: “Who am I in the world?”

As I connect this essay with the previous blogpost where I talk about ontological security, ii think it’s worth noting that while ontological security and ontological insecurity might function dynamically/dialectically, one is not the opposite of the other. If ontological security is the belief that one is a total being with a “true,” “authentic” or “core” Self (sense of self, Selfhood, Self Identity), we cannot necessarily assume that the absence of this belief or belief that one does not have a core or authentic self is a marker of Ontological Insecurity. It could be a keen awareness that one is a socially constructed being. As I conceptualize this awareness, it is more cognitive than affective, a reflexivity about one’s place in the world.

Generally, as philosophers remark, we still live out our everyday lives with a semblance that we are whole, unified beings, unless we are going through a major transitions that reconfigure internal perceptual boundaries or externally-driven classifications, such as aging or gender transitioning. This is of course, not counting those who experience disassociation that often accompanies trauma like PTSD or named disorders like borderline personality or schizophrenia. I don’t claim any knowledge in the latter areas since I am approaching this topic from a sociological perspective only. 

Having given some caveat, ontological Insecurity is more akin to the loss of knowing where or what the Self is, which can create a sense of not knowing, or unclarity, or loss of cohesion and stability. This can be momentary, like when you feels dizzy because you’re off balance, but once you stabilize, the feeling passes. Or it can occur with age, as the image in the mirror no longer resembles what we expect to see. It can occur when we are misrecognized, when we dissassociate. The ontological breaks for most of us are temporary, arising when confronted with an immediate disjuncture.

I’m continuing to work on these concepts through the theory of social echolocation, especially to reflect on how our sense of stability and wellbeing in the age of always on, digitally saturated societies, is deeply connected to how others respond to us, which is a communication pattern not just limited to humans communicating with each other through various digital medium, but involving nonhuman participants in the conversation, interwoven into platform features, the affordances of our mobile devices, the accessibility of networks, the expectation of instantaneous data transmission and information exchange, and other infrastructures. 

Want to read more? I’m working on these ideas in two publications in 2020/2021:

works cited in this post:

Bakewell, Sarah. 2016. At the Existentialist Cafe. Knopf Press.

DeNora, Tia. 2000. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge University Press.

Gustafsson, Karl, and Nina C. Krickel-Choi. 2020. “Returning to the Roots of Ontological Security: Insights from the Existentialist Anxiety Literature.” European Journal of International Relations 26 (3), 875–95. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066120927073.

Laing, Ronald D. 1959. The Divided Self. London, UK: Tavistock.