Summer 2008 Robert O'Block, Publisher

The Self: A Useful Concept or Psychobabble?

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By Kate Cohen-Posey, MS, LMHC, LMFT

The American Heritage Dictionary (1969) defines the self as (1) the total essential being of one person; (2) the personality, character, or a person’s unique individuality; (3) an individual’s consciousness of his or her identity; and (4) personal (selfish) concerns. While all these definitions have their place in psychology, like Mount Everest, the first meaning calls out to many people seeking personal growth: Who am I? How can I be truer to myself?

Possible etiologies of the word self have special appeal for its budding prominence in some treatment approaches. One translation of the archaic root word seu means to give birth. In Sanskrit, the classical language of India, sva means one’s own. Likewise, svamin means one’s own master, or swami.

History of the Self in Psychotherapy

Although Freud may be considered by many to be the originator of psychotherapy, he did little to fashion ideas about the self. His “ego” was a mediator between basic Id drives (sex, hunger, and aggression) and internalized rules from society. The Id, Ego, and Super Ego made their debut in the 1920s. Freud’s psychoanalysis used free association and dream interpretation to delve into the subconscious to expose repressed instinctual forces and resulting conflicts in order to resolve them.

Carl Jung arrived at concepts of archetypes prior to his break with Freud in 1912. Among these was the Self, which creates meaning and individuality, helps people fulfill their potential, and is the organizing principle of the mind. Jung defined the Ego differently than Freud. It was the conscious identity of a person that can be hurt or wounded and is in need of protection. Jungian analysis explores the psyche through symbols with the purpose of helping people individuate, find meaning in suffering, and discover their purpose.

A lesser-known colleague of Freud and Jung’s was Roberto Assagioli. In the late 1920s, he started his school of psychosynthesis in Italy. The “Higher Self” was the centerpiece of his approach. This therapy identifies sub-personalities that cause people to experience conflicts. Then, in contrast to analysis, energy inflowing from the “superconscious” or Self is synthesized to produce a center that can direct sub-personalities harmoniously and altruistically (Assagioli, 1965). Assagioli defined the Higher Self as a center of pure awareness and pure will (action).

Self-psychology is a modern psychoanalytic (object-relations) theory conceived by Heinz Kohut in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. The “self” as Kohut used it creates the experience of a meaningful, continuous, cohesive sense of self. People develop ‘self-object experiences’ during social interaction from infancy onwards (Kohut, 1971). Fulfilled and/or unfulfilled wishes and needs for self-object experiences foster or deter psychological growth. Kohut’s concept of the self is related to a person’s identity. For Jung and Assagioli, the Self conveyed a dynamic force at the center of a person’s being.

Although cognitive therapists might define the self as an organized system of learned beliefs that an individual holds to be true about his or her personal existence, they do not use the term “self.” The exception to this is Hazel Markus, who identifies “possible selves” that represent future-oriented desires, dreams, and feared phantoms to avoid (Markus & Nurius, 1987). Possible selves are the links between our self-concept and motivations.

The (capitalized) Self did not appear in the central nomenclature of a treatment orientation again until the appearance of Transpersonal Psychology in the 1970s. Ken Wilber (2000), one of the key theorists of this movement, describes the “Transpersonal Self” as a witness of mental, emotional, and physical experiences and a guide for personal growth. Treatment employs standard psychotherapy techniques or meditative practices appropriate to a person’s level of psycho-spiritual development.

Also in the 1970s, Hal and Sidra Stone (1989) developed their Psychology of Selves. In this approach, terms are reversed from those previously mentioned. Selves are energy patterns that operate similarly to Assagioli’s sub-personalities. The “Aware Ego,” like Ken Wilber’s Transpersonal Self, is a witness that observes the agendas of various personality parts and makes decisions that transcend any particular part’s motives. A “voice dialogue process” is used in which people choose various locations to assume postures and “energy patterns” of their sub-personalities. A facilitator questions each one in turn. Finally, people return to a “position of awareness” in the room where the facilitator helps them process their experience.

Richard Schwartz was a practitioner of Structured Strategic Family Therapy when he changed his focus from the family as the unit of change to the commotion of inner voices (personality parts) that were thwarting his clients’ progress. His Internal Family Systems Therapy recognized a “Core” or “True Self” that is both an inner compassionate leader and a boundary less state of mind (Schwartz, 1995). Using imagery (insight) techniques, the Self questions personality parts to restore harmony and balance to the internal system.

Describing the Self as an archetype, a center, a witness, a guide for growth, an inner leader, or an expansive state requires a degree of imagination and belief. Therefore, rather than telling what the Self is, the author of this article defines the Self by what it does: It is a process of forming meta-cognitions (thoughts about thoughts) that observe, question, and dialogue with distressing inner voices to produce clarity, calmness, and empowerment. Although not a “Higher Self,” these are higher order-of-thought processes than the automatic thoughts identified by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis. A “dialogue therapy” is modeled on Martin Buber’s Philosophy of Dialogue. People are coached to engage distressing inner voices by validating without yielding to them in an I-Thou manner (Buber, 1923). This empowers the Self and “hypnotizes” domineering personality parts to relinquish control.

Current Use of the Term Self in Psychotherapy

Step-by-step protocols that activate the Self by coaching it to make validating observations and questions are beyond the scope of this article. Further discussion is warranted to clarify the way personality parts, with their misguided, demeaning messages, come to dominate the psyche. Then, the means to restore the Self to its rightful role will be outlined. Before proceeding with such an endeavor, the author would like to know if therapists use the concept of the “Self” to aid the treatment process. This would be similar to surveying the current use of the Gestalt jargon “top dog” and “under dog” or the cognitive therapy term “irrational thought.” The above survey is offered to clarify clinicians’ familiarity with and use of the construct of the Self as described in this article.

Results of this survey will be published in a future Annals article to possibly be titled “Reversing a Coup d’Psyche: The Self Resumes Its Rightful Role Among Super Ego Dictators.”

The mindfulness movement and third generation Ego State approaches are fostering emerging therapies that feature the Self as a key concept. In her bestselling book, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (2006) describes the Supreme Self from the Yoga tradition and explains how she converses with her own infinitely wise voice within in her most private notebook. Whether or not the Self is a useful concept or merely psychobabble is a decision each clinician can make for his or herself, but it is an elusive term that warrants deep levels of understanding as it edges its way into therapy sessions from surprising sources.

Published by Dr. Robert O'Block