What Is The Self?
What is the self?
People have many ideas about this. For most of us the concept of self
would have to include a body and a mind. Many would add the soul to the
mix. In psychology, we might run into ideas like the id, ego, and
superego, the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, the real self
and the false self. It is probably safe to say that most of us
have some sense that our self is a thing hidden. We have this persona,
this image we show the world, and we have this self concept that we
know isn’t quite right. We know it isn’t right because it keeps bumping
up against the rest of the world and getting bruised. We seem to have
to keep adjusting it to fit reality or we cling to it rigidly and the
world gives us pain like tight shoes give pain to one who insists his
feet are smaller than they really are.
We may have a sense that
our real self is some sort of core self. It is in us, but we can’t
quite get to it. Or we sense it inside us in our emotions and our
thoughts, and that may not be too pretty. We may have a belief that we
are essentially this immortal soul, this ghosty thing that gets stained
with our sins. Others of us have the impression that we individuals are
part of a greater Self. This Self is not just us, but is perhaps
everybody and we as individuals are just a node of that consciousness.
Whatever our conception of
self may be, many of us grow a sense of shame about it. We find life
difficult and we make a lot of mistakes and we get the impression that
we shouldn’t. We find that other people will judge us, and we aren’t
keen on them seeing how flawed we are. We can put a lot of effort into
keeping the rest of the world from seeing what we are so ashamed of. We
may need to develop a façade and a false self to protect our
impaired sense of self. Consequently, our authentic self fails to
Perhaps you would like to
try on a different way of looking at your self. What if there
were no core self. What if your self were made up of all the roles
you’ve played. You started out playing the role of a baby
of a particular gender, then the role of a little girl or boy. And you
learned these roles in relationship to your particular family. And as a
child you learned to be a citizen of your country. In time, you found
that you were of a particular race. And you learned that your family
either had money or didn’t. You found that you could learn things or
you found it hard to learn things. You took on a role at school. You
started to be the attractive kid or the not so attractive kid, the
popular one or the unpopular one. You either found it easy to interact
with people or not so much. You found some things you were good at and
others you weren’t good at.
We might think of this
model of self as made up of an accumulation of roles that you play
quite effectively and those that are less well developed. For one
person, the role of musician may be well developed. The person has
studied music, practiced, performed and received applause. That part of
self is well established. Another person, perhaps with the same latent
talent never studied, practiced or performed, so has an undeveloped
musician role. In this type of model, there is no point in calling
oneself names. It would not make sense to think of oneself as being
unworthy or being a loser. Instead one would be able to assume that
problems are the result of having less developed skills in a particular
role or set of roles.
This type of model of the
self lends itself to moving in the direction that mystics tend to go.
They tend to find the conventional sense of self empty. Looking
deeply at the self, they see that it is a creation of the mind, that it
is an aggregate thing, that it is essentially illusory. People having
had enlightenment experiences often describe a dissolution or
transcendence of the self. If we view our self as being a construct, a
creation of mind, a tendency to organize our experiences in a certain
way that consists of our accumulated memories, perceptions and habits
of behavior as we engage in various life roles we can take our self
more lightly. It is a thing that can be busted up and put back together
in more useful forms. It is not some entity that has more or less value
in relation to others. It is just a convenience. We are no more special
than anyone else or less special. We are all in this together.
Meditate upon your self.
Consider what makes you whom you think you are. See through the
conception you have of self. Look for what is left when the mind is
Here is our take on the Buddhist perspective on self: The Five Aggregates
Here is an interesting page about roles in the sense of self: Role Dynamics: An Integrative Approach To Psychology
And User-Friendly Language, by Adam Blatner, M.D.
[ HOME ][ THOUGHT ][ ARCHIVE ][ PRAYERS ]
[ POETRY ][ LINKS ][ LISTS ][ BOOKSHOP ]
© 2006-2007 Tom Barrett