Illusion and Self-Identity


  • Author Dr. Bruce Wilson
  • Published June 9, 2022
  • Word count 679

Illusion and Self-Identity

Bruce Wilson, PhD

What is an illusion? When something is not what it seems to be, there is a good chance we are in the possible grip of an illusion. Why does this happen? Illusions appear to happen mostly when our imagination displaces our reality. An example is when anxiety kicks in from some historical trauma, which may be entirely unrelated to our present circumstance. Anxiety, phobias, compulsions, and other psychological reactions can become imaginary triggers to a series of illusions, which have no resemblance to our current reality or our self-identity. Individuals who persist in hanging onto these illusions about themselves can negatively affect their self-esteem. There are a myriad of issues that surface in the therapeutic environment that psychologists can become more cognizant of through understanding illusions. Understanding and dispelling the client’s illusions can assist clients to a healthier self-identity.

“We cast away priceless time in dreams, born of imagination, fed upon illusion, and put to death by reality.” – Judy Garland

The “I” and “Me”

According to psychologist Henry James, the “Me” of self-identity is our autobiographical identity. We base our view of self entirely on our experiential history. We assess ourselves on what we have done and what has happened to us. This self-observation is salient but somewhat incomplete. We are more than what we have done and what has happened to us. Conversely, according to James, the “I” self-view is thought to incorporate our self-awareness of the here and now. We transition from a historical/biographical reference, the “Me”, to an identity based on our consciousness of the present, the “I”.

This duality helps us understand how illusions may get a foothold on our sense of self. When we are too focused on the past, we may not be able to be in the reality of the present. Take the anorexic client as an example. When asked to identify their current body shape, the anorexic client will consistently say they are two or three body shapes larger than the reality. The anorexic sees only the “Me” or autobiographical experience, of being overweight, and not the “I” or here and now awareness of their real identity. What becomes obvious from this example of the anorexic client is that the “Me” orientation is a distortion of the person’s self-identity, and is an illusion. Once in the illusion, the power of one’s imagination takes control. Professor Bruce Hood has gone so far as to suggest that in an illusion the brain sees imagination and reality as the same thing, no different. Given this may be true, we would be captive to our illusion unless we become aware that we are in an illusion.

Tradition is the illusion of permanence.” – Woody Allen

The Biogenic, Sociogenic, & Idiogenic

Personality psychologist Brian Little of Cambridge University delineates three sources of personality influencers. The biogenic source defines what your genes dispose you to; the sociogenic defines what your culture and family teach you; and, the idiogenic helps you decide what is really important to you, so you can direct and organize your behaviour. The biogenic and sociogenic personality influencers appear to be more about the “Me” or autobiographical forms of self-identity. The idiogenic personality influencer appears to be more about the “I” or self-awareness component of self-identity and may be a possible connection to revisiting one’s reality.

“Belief in the absence of illusions is itself an illusion.” – Barbara Harrison

Perhaps the key to turning more illusions into reality for most clients resides in this idiogenic personality. When clients become more proactive in their self-awareness and more self-directive in their beliefs about self, they will be experiencing identity growth. Becoming more idiogenic appears to be a pathway to discovering more about who we are and how to negate the need for illusion.

Clients that resolve their illusions may realize that the influence of a vivid imagination may be feeding some of their unwanted and gratuitous psychological symptoms. Clients will benefit from learning how to dispute these imaginings and label them for what they really are. Not real!


Dr. Bruce Wilson is a psychologist with 25 years of experience. He enjoys sharing his ramblings with friends and colleagues. He is currently in private practice at Mind Health Care in Geelong, Australia. This article is solely his work.

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