I have previously written about psychotherapy as a spiritual act: a means for a person to rediscover and be his or her true self. I believe that that is the essence of spiritual life: a person living fully as his or her true self. But it occurred to me that I had not said much about what the nature of that true self is that a person is trying to free through psychotherapy. I have in mind two different perspectives on the question of what constitutes the self.
The first perspective has to do with the person as an individual, the ego level of existence. From this perspective, we are talking about a person’s character or personality. The ego can be a fragile thing. To some extent, the process of development is a process of adaptation: one learns to conform to the expectations of one’s environment. And then too sometimes a person’s character and personality can be under attack. Growing up, one may learn that his spontaneity is not encouraged by a depressed parent; or a person may be told that his energy and enthusiasm is selfish. All too often, for various reasons, a person learns to protect this self from harm or impingement. One such strategy for protection is what the noted psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called the development of the “False Self.” In Winnicott’s writing, the “False Self” is a defense, a kind of mask of behaviors and thoughts which comply with others’ expectations. Aspects of the true self are hidden behind this false construction. To drop this defense, to allow the self to roam freely in the world, a world that is sometimes experienced as hostile, is truly a revolutionary act and is precisely the aim of psychotherapy. It is a very rewarding experience as a therapist to help someone who has perhaps lived cautiously, a kind of restricted or safe life, to bloom and flourish. Such a person may now take risks, may enroll in a new educational program, take a job more suited to him or her, or purse meaningful relationships. Likewise it is gratifying to see a person end the fight with him or herself and be more accepting and compassionate.
The other angle I have in mind when talking about the self has to do with the more transpersonal understanding of the term. This is the perspective, often spoken of in spiritual traditions, of the unification of life, an existence beyond ego borders and delineations. I found an intriguing description of this dimension when reading an essay by the Australian psychoanalyst Neville Symington. He writes: “The fundamental fact is existence itself. There is existence and nothing outside of existence so I am part of it; a minute part but nevertheless part of it. There is a past history of the world stretching back for three million years of ‘hominid’ life and stretching back 500 million years of animate life and there is a forward stretch for many millions of years. We are all here in this tiny slice of time. Minute though it is, yet I am a part of it.” Symington is writing about the experience of being “a part of it” – not separate but connected to all of existence.
For Symington, the act of uncovering and freeing the true self is at the very core of psychoanalysis (and psychotherapy). He writes “The progressive series of inner acts through which I become what is – this is psychoanalysis. The word I use to refer to this immensity of which I am a part is totality. I use this word because it suggests that there is nothing outside of it. It embraces the whole universe both outwardly and inwardly. It is the substance of my inwardness and also of my outer being. The analyst and the patient are together a small part of this totality.”
For some clients, it is an experience of the whole, of being a part of something large and without individual separateness, that they seek. The way to such an experience I believe is through finding the individual self first. I don’t know where I heard the expression, but it often resounds in my head: “To transcend the self you have to first have a self.” In order to experience a more transpersonal experience – the experience of being part of the totality – it is necessary to first experience one’s individual self more fully. Psychotherapy, to the degree that it is a process of freeing the bonds that inhibit a person from being his or her full self, is a revolutionary act.
Symington, N. (2012). The essence of Psycho-Analysis as opposed to what is secondary. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 22, 395-409.