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 flourish.

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 ofRole Self 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 still.

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.

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© 2006-2007 Tom Barrett