WHAT IS THE SELF? WHO ARE WE?
I’m dating myself by reciting a favorite story told by the late comedian, Myron Cohen. A man comes home to his wife and upon opening the door smells the odor of cigars and asks, “Since when did you start smoking cigars?” Her puzzled response prompts him to say in an accusatory voice, “Well then there must be a man in the house.” He immediately proceeds to bolt through the house opening one door after another and lo and behold, upon opening the bedroom door, as a man appears, the husband blurts out, “And what are you doing here?!” to which he replies with a shrug, “Everybody got to be someplace.” In each and every place that there is a person, there is not just any person but A person. As much as there is a place that each of us occupies at any given moment it is our place and no one else’s at that moment. Each of us is a singular entity that no one can replace.
The Objective and Subjective Self
What is the self? And who are we? Up until the 19th century it was generally accepted that what makes us unique is our soul, or psyche, something immaterial that transcends our earthly existence. However, at about the same time that psychology became a science of its own, the self was understood instead as manifest from our interpersonal relationships. The early developmental psychologist, James Mark Baldwin, posited, for example, that children identify themselves in relation to others in their world through observation, imitation, and empathy, as well as through conflict and assuming complementary roles. Through “reflected appraisals,” according to the psychoanalyst, Harry Stack Sullivan, children learn to see themselves as their parents see and treat them. So, who we are is a sum of our experiences from our relations with other people, especially those such as our parents to whom we are closest and most deeply influenced early in life. Later in childhood and thereafter others can serve as mentors who help further guide and serve as “role models.”
How we see ourselves, or what we commonly call “identity,” is sometimes referred to as the “objective” or reflected self. However, there is another part of who we are that probes more deeply into our essence that has to do with agency. The psychologist, Gordon Allport, called this part of the self “the proprium.” This is the part of us that organizes our experience, that says to ourselves, “This is me, and no one else.” It is also the part that makes decisions, carves a path to follow in life, and that creates meaning from experience. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, had a word for this he called the “transcendental ego.” Without it we are merely the sum of our memories like going through a photo album of our lives. An album says a lot about who we are yet something deeply fundamental is missing without a narrator. Pictures and memories tell a story about a life, but the “self as agent” lives a life that has purpose, understanding, and intention.
Western and Eastern Notions of The Self
Conceptualizations of self historically have differed between Eastern and Western civilizations. Here, in the West, with our traditions in freedom and self-reliance identity is more individualized, whereas in the East a more collective sense of self prevails. Buddhism with its lessons about the destructive illusions of the ego is a good example. The psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, created a model of personal development that fits the Western notion of the self within Eastern philosophy’s broader framework. According to Jung, the ego or Western conception of self is just a small part of who we are. We must integrate all the existential dimensions of what it means to be human, such as “the shadow,” and “the syzygy,” which refers to our relative masculine and feminine aspects, over a period of a lifetime in order to “self-actualize” or reach our full potentials.
The Bounded and The Ensembled Self
For Carl Jung, the self of the West is more individualized and egoistic whereas the Eastern notion of the self is broader and collective in nature. In Buddhism, the self disappears altogether as just an illusion. The Western psychologist, Edward Sampson, has proposed a distinction between these two ways of conceptualizing the self he calls the “bounded” and “ensembled” notions of the self. While a bounded self has served Western civilizations by promoting self-reliance, autonomy, and free enterprise, an ensembled notion of the “self” tempers the hubris, unbridled avarice, and willful ignorance to which an ego devoid of its collective conscience may be susceptible. A collective consciousness also can assuage the existential dread of alienation and finiteness living in a world without meaning and purpose can bring. It is through our collective identity and by discovering the limits of our ego that spirituality is born at a personal level.
The Harmonious versus the Disordered Self
These and other influences from my life, clinical work, and education have led me to propose that a healthy “self” is reliant on a harmonious and integrated relationship between these two fundamental aspects of the self that is both bounded and ensembled in nature. As a corollary to this proposal, when this relationship is antagonistic instead, as in a zero-sum game, problems in living ensue that parallel what mental-health professionals in the West call disorders of personality. For example, a healthy person is a person with strong self-esteem but only when the foundations of that strength do not have disastrous ramifications for the welfare of others. By the same token, generosity and compassion enhance our sense of self and security but not when they eventuate in destructive ways to our sense of autonomy and ability to advocate for ourselves when necessary.
The concept of the self has been and perhaps will always remain a mysterious and difficult idea to pin down. It isn’t something we can see with our eyes and feel with our fingertips yet it has emerged in human history as one of the most fundamental notions that demands attention as we humans endeavor to understand who we are and what makes us tick. As the psychologist, Raymond Cattell, who was known for his fondness for studying the human personality through psychometric analyses once observed, our attitude toward ourselves is the most powerful factor in determining who we are.
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Robert Hamm Ph.D