The Struggle With Self

Many years ago my good friend Dr Phil Harker taught me that the route to good psychological adjustment had three steps, viz.

Know Yourself>Accept Youself>Forget Yourself.

This has over the years, proved to be good advice. This seems such a simple formula – and it is. But it is also very profound and quite difficult for many of us to come to grips with.

I thought this week I might pen a few thoughts about his powerful theory of transformation.

As young children our awareness is essentially open and receptive, yet the capacity to reflect on our own experience does not fully develop until the early teenage years. This is the stage that Piaget termed “formal operations”. Until then our self structure is under the sway of a more primitive capacity – identification.

This is so because in these early years because of our social needs we have a need to belong. We are very susceptible to the opinions of those whose approval we desperately seek in developing a sense of self.

Because we lack self-reflective awareness in childhood, we are mostly dependent on others to help us see and know ourselves – to do our reflecting for us. Therefore our first self-knowledge is almost entirely dependant on others. If we are lucky enough to be surrounded by those who accept us unconditionally, our derived sense of self will be positive and robust. If we are not so fortunate and those whose opinions are important to us reflect conditional acceptance and intolerance, our sense of self will be far more fragile, conditional and dependent.

So then, as our capacities for self-reflection increase we are able to review this self that was constructed through the identification process mentioned above. Many of us, at this stage fall into a trap. If our sense of self, our understanding of who we are, was able to be constructed by others before our self-awareness was properly formed, surely now we are self-aware we must be able to develop our own construct of our sense of self. Surely now, at a fundamental psychological level, we could be all “self-made” men and women. Into this enticing space jumped the “pop-psychologists”. They promoted the notion that you and I (and indeed everyone else) could be whatever we wanted to be.

But that course denies a certain truth. There is a foundation to who we are that can’t be changed. We are who we are because of our genetics and our socialisation. Whilst we can modify some of our behaviours when we are aware and proactive, there is yet an underlying platform that is unalterable.

All this frenetic energy to lead us to be what we are not, impedes the second stage of our journey to personal adjustment – to be able to accept ourselves. This process is made hugely difficult if we come to believe as the “pop-psychologists” would have us believe that we are masters of our own self-development. This is not to say that there are not things we can do to aid our own personal development but the latitude that we have to create our sense of self is quite limited.

If we are wise, we come to understand that although our original sense of self was created by others before our self-reflectiveness developed, once that capacity has been acquired there is still an impediment to our ability to manufacture an entirely malleable self-concept. If we thought otherwise it would be almost impossible to “accept ourselves”. If we are unaware of this impediment then we will idealise who we think we should be and when we fall short of this idealistic construct and blame ourselves for not being good enough.

We naturally fall into the all-too-common rationalising tendency and take up a problem-solving mentality that reinforces the inner division between a reformer self and a problematic “me” it wants to change. Psychology teaches us that the alienated , controlling, or rejecting attitude towards the problem at hand is in fact a large part of the problem itself. If we come to understand this then the way opens up to us to look at new ways of resolving the dilemma.

If we become aware, there eventually comes a realisation that there is something standing behind who we are that is indeed immutable. It is beyond transformation. It is beyond rejection. That is who we are no matter what happens. When we realise this, scales fall from our eyes. We are who we are.

This is the final stage of the Phil Harker protocol. Once we come to this realisation we can put the “self” aside. When through this process we can truly “forget ourselves” then the focus shifts from our doing to our being. The “forget yourself” imperative only occurs when we have overcome the dictates of ego. When that happens our world-view is far more objective. It is instructive to remember those times in our lives when we have been happiest. I am willing to bet that if you recall such times you were not thinking of yourself. Alternatively when we are unhappiest are those times when our thoughts of self dominated our thinking. Depressed people, for example, are self-obsessed. It has been said that well adjusted people don’t think less of themselves but think of themselves less!

In the end the decision moves from “what should we do” to “who should we be”. Once we have come to these realisations our “being” becomes more important than our “doing.” And more importantly the question of “who should we be” is only answered satisfactorily when we realise that at the centre of our being is an immutable presence. If we let go trying to be who we are not and accept that which at our essential essence we really are, then life becomes more productive and more satisfying.

Thus the next stage is inexorably not “who should we be?” but “who are we?” And if we have come to an understanding of these dynamics, we will inevitably be reconciled with the fact that this concept of self shaped by our genetics and our socialisation is largely determined for us. Then contentment is achieved by not seeking to be something other but being reconciled with this “self” which is essentially us and largely beyond our immediate control.

Thus, in the face of the mantra of the “pop-psychologists” we can’t be what ever we would want to be, we can only be what we are – and we should be satisfied with that.

When we are able to put aside the self and remove the “self” defence filters that it uses to mediate our view of the world, we are able to see the world more objectively. This is an essential step to the clarity of mind that the Buddhists call mindfulness or Buddha-mind. Here one learns to remain continually present within the movement of experience – whether thought, perception, feeling or sensation.

The Dzogchen Master, Paltrul Rinpoche said, “It is sufficient to simply let your mind rest in the state of whatever takes place, in whatever happens.”

This is the first stage of putting aside duality and removing the barrier between the observer and the observed. (Perhaps a subject worthy of discussion at another time.) But let me leave the last word, to the thirteenth century Japanese Zen Buddhist Master, Dogen Zenji.

“To study the Way is to study the Self.
To study the Self is to forget the Self.
To forget the Self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things is to forget the
barrier between Self and Other.”

8 Replies to “The Struggle With Self”

  1. The amount genetics plays in who we are are and therefore how we behave is huge. I personally believe it is much greater than even the science these days accepts and over the past 50 years this has grown significantly. Research with identical twins separated by circumstances at a very young age is very telling.

    Environment also no doubt plays a big part, but how many parents have brought up several children to find that one is so different to the others in some important way (at least as they see it)? Nurture is an influence but Nature for my money dominates. This said I am not saying that a suicide bomber is genetically predisposed to their destiny but some people would not take on this destiny regardless of how traumatic or manipulative the circumstances may be.

    If then, our behaviour is so influenced by our genetics and environment why is it that we assume human behaviour is completely within our control and failure to meet our, or others expectations is our fault? This is the biggest cause of stress and depression in the Western world and also the biggest reason for interpersonal conflict. We assume our and others actions are delivered consciously with intent. Then we have guilt, regret, malice, etc that eats away at our soul. One thing the Christian tradition did very well was cut through this guilt burden through confession and forgiveness at a spiritual level. Perhaps the decline of the established Church is a contributor to the epidemic of depression.

    A final observation about the statement, “Because we lack self-reflective awareness in childhood, we are mostly dependent on others to help us see and know ourselves – to do our reflecting for us.”

    I agree with this and I observe a trend that I don’t think is helpful associated with it. For some reason society has now decided that every child is a winner or certainly no child is a loser and it is important that we are never critical of a child in any way so they grow up with healthy self esteem. Problem is when they get to their teens and reflect on themselves they realise that their current view of the world, that we gave them, is completely wrong. They are not good at everything and the world suddenly is not all caring and nice. The unpreparedness for this reality I believe is creating some serious transition problems for youth. I am not saying that we should not soften the impacts of failure and assist children through this period of their lives but to eliminate it is delaying a problem that in the end becomes much greater as a result. Accepting our weaknesses and failure is an important thing children should be taught.

  2. I’m interested to understand further, your view on depression. I understand the message in this blog as depression stems from the state of mind as influence from upbringing and environment. In the medical profession depression is seen as more biological/chemical e.g. serotonin uptake. I am interested in the cause effect relationship i.e. whether the biological causes the depressive state of mind, or the depressive state of mind causes the biological effect which further perpetuates the depression.

  3. Can’t help but agree with you Greg. In our rush to ensure our young people have increased self-esteems we often give them expectations that are entirely wrong. The world is a difficult place for most of us and it is useful to learn that our talents, in some areas, are wanting. I certainly believe that we should try to find areas where our young people are successful and to give them positive feedback but it does them no favours to praise abilities they do not have.

    Matt, I probably can’t satisfy your question about depression in a short answer. I have spent a great deal of time studying depression in recent years.

    Just like most mental illnesses depression can have a genetic component and a socialisation component. Indeed it is hard to separate them. If you have a parent disposed to depression then there is a likelihood that you also might be genetically disposed. But is your parent acted out their depression in your household when you were young it is quite likely that you also could take on some of these behaviours irrespective of your genetic tendencies.

    As Dorothy Rowe pointed out, people with depression build themselves prisons not to keep themselves in but to keep the world out.

    Sometimes depression is reinforced because there is a pay-off for the behaviours exhibited. People rally around sympathetically to those who seem so distressed. Not that they do this consciously, but when there are concerned others who come to the aid of the depressed oft times the behaviours are reinforced.

    Depression (just as most mental illnesses) is a manifestation of an inappropriate world-view. Again Dorothy Rowe said that the world-view of a depressive looked something like this;

    No matter how good and acceptable I appear to be, I am really bad, evil, valueless, unacceptable to myself and other people

    Other people are such that I must fear, hate and envy them

    Life is terrible and death is worse

    Only bad things have happened to me in the past and only bad things will happen to me in the future

    I must never forgive anyone, least of all myself

    It is easy to see that if we viewed the world in this way, life would indeed be difficult. It takes a lot of courage for someone to confront an errant world-view. It normally only happens after they have experienced great pain because the way they see the world is so out of kilter.

    I am happy to talk to you about this in more depth when I see you next.

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