The true self
The true self and its shadow
From the sublime to fragmentation
What follows is an extremely brief and rather dense overview of what is the profound, complex and multifaceted issue of being human. I particularly hope to show how our basic human nature, with its empathic heart and soul, can account for our most sublime and sometimes mystical experiences of connection, knowing and belonging, yet also how this relates to our struggles with attachment, relationship and profound psychological difficulties.
A note on the true self
I offer this overview not because I am coming from a theoretical point of view, but because I have lived every nuance of these experiences and spent a great deal of effort trying to come to terms with and understand them. What follows therefore is an account of the lived experience of the true self, although it clearly overlaps in some ways, whilst differing in others, with the conceptualisations of the True Self, as drawn by Donald Winnicott, and of the Self, as understood by Carl Jung. I will not delineate the differences and similarities here. I also offer a sketched understanding of the true self as related to the core self as described by the neuroscientists Jaak Panksepp and Antonio Damasio, although I appreciate that their views differ from each other in certain ways.
Connection and the sublime
Being in touch with our core self connects us both to our true selves and to others and the natural world around us. The core self works through identification, seeking harmony and synchrony with the other. Thus empathy is at the heart of our being (see Gallese in Knox 2011); it is how we understand others, it gives empathic attunement and a deep attachment and connectedness, it is the soul. Due to the empathic resonance with the other, the connection is accompanied by a lessening of distinctness of self, a lessening of concern for self and sometimes a sense of oneness with the other (as also with the natural environment). Despite this loss of distinctness of the self, if responded to positively, the self is typically experienced as enhanced, full, and brought to life so that, perhaps paradoxically, we feel more truly ourselves. Love is the feeling most characteristic of this state.
Being in touch with the core self is being in touch with the flow of energy, the libido, the source, the waters of life. In neuroscientific terms, it is being in touch with what Jaak Panksepp (1998) describes as our basic affective systems. It is spontaneous, vivifying, enlivening and brings a deep knowing of, and feeling for, others and the natural environment. The experience of this connection is often numinous, spiritual, and mystical in nature, not least because it goes on beneath the level of linear, logical, thinking, and is the earliest form of consciousness, with us from the beginning of life. It is experienced as a felt connectedness, as enlivenment, feeling, intuition, and a deep knowing. In its benign form, it is accompanied by a feeling of contentment, fulfilment, of being who we really are, of being true to ourselves. Living from the core self is life itself; alienation from it is (like) death, and brings despair and depression in its wake.
The shadow side of in-touchness with the core self is that its openness, spontaneity and connectedness leave us open to and affected by others in ways that can be difficult, distressing, painful, shaming, intrusive, violating and overwhelming, particularly when they are disapproving, angry, and hostile or, worse, sadistic and abusive. Others can ‘get to us’, ‘muck with us’, and we are subject to them. This sensitivity to our relational and material environment occurs through part of the core self called the protoself, as described by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (Damasio1999, p. 153 ff.). The more we are in touch with our core, the more open we are, and the more we are affected by others to the point where it can become intolerable.
Attachment and the divine child
This is made more powerful because the primary, imperative role of the core self is to relate and attach to the other, which, for the infant, is a matter of survival, of life and death. The need for attachment is therefore intense. Not to be met or responded to when we are this open and attuned to the other is agony, annihilating (for example, for infants see Ed Tronick’s ‘Still Face’ experiment, widely accessible online). The other’s non-accepting, critical or hostile response makes us feel intensely bad, shamed (shame closes-down self-expression automatically) and, at the extreme, suicidal - we want to kill ourselves, or parts of ourselves, off.
However, a benign connection to a welcoming, accepting other, facilitates us feeling warm, open, ‘ourselves’, playful, vivified and enlivened - to feeling loved and loving. Thus these parts of ourselves require acceptance and harmony in order to come into being, which also reinforces the life or death nature of these experiences. This contact with the core self is, in essence, the enlivening, playful openness and spontaneity of infancy - at best the ‘divine child’, at worst the distressed, dependent, rejected, terrified, fragmented infant.
Superego and dissociation
This core part of us, due to its very sensitivity, often gets buried and lost; and this is partly by design, as that very sensitivity and attunement is what allows us to adapt to the relational environment around us - at first our parents/caregivers and close family. The parts of us that are not met and accepted are closed down and split off (by the primitive superego) in the service of fitting in, being accepted and keeping safe. In inhospitable early environments, the elements of the core self that we may be required to close down and dissociate may be substantial, so that we end up living half-lives, hardly connected to and enlivened by our true selves.
Narcissism and socialisation
This is enforced and reinforced by the subjective experience that the parts of us that have not been met and are split off are felt to be bad - wrong and unacceptable - too needy, demanding, desirous, nasty, aggressive, selfish and so on, even though these parts may be who we feel we really are. We then feel profoundly that we are bad. These core parts, which constitute the centre of ourselves, are readily labelled as self-centred, selfish and narcissistic. They are seen as anti-social (as socialisation requires a degree of self-negation), and thus they do not get accepted and brought into relationship where they could continue to develop in sophistication and nuance of expression. In the process of socialisation, it can be that selflessness is seen as the ideal, and any form of self-expression is seen as bad.
Defences and cul-de-sacs against distress
Not to close down or move away from our core self, requires us to be prepared to remain open and experience the distress involved in everyday life - to suffer - and to be able to process the feelings, impulses, reactions and experiences that arise; this allows us to stay in relationship with our core and with others. However this is hard, and it takes us some time (perhaps years or decades) in order to be able to manage and process what arises within us, and we naturally defend against these experiences at first, withdrawing and developing other ‘narcissistic’ defences (they are called narcissistic because they relate to the fundamental, exquisitely sensitive core of ourselves).
These inevitable defences, which can be very unhelpful in the long-term, may be such things as angrily trying to control the other through blame and recrimination; withdrawing from both self and other due to having no expectation or hope of good contact, thus falling into depression and despair; suspending our own self-expression in order to achieve harmony through compliance with the other in the hope that this will be reciprocated; or obsessional worrying in order to try to get things ‘right’ for others, which leads to a sense of failure when we are not able to achieve this, and is accompanied by anxiety, low-self esteem and depression.
These defences (and there are other forms of them too, such as inflation and omnipotent thinking), are all attempts to lessen distress and suffering. Whilst this is natural and necessary at times, severing the relationship with the core and the connection to the other is a high price to pay. Whilst we all begin life as narcissistically fragile, the ability to bear suffering comes as a result of development and maturation. However this is not just a matter of accepting all and any suffering, we also need to be able to challenge others’ behaviour, particularly when they are exploiting our vulnerability so that they don’t have to suffer. This prevents us falling into a masochistic trap, and sometimes we may need to walk away from a particular relationship.
Secure attachment and separation
More adaptively, we may put our energies into other relationships and activities - diversifying - which takes the pressure and expectation off ‘this’ particular relationship, whilst maintaining a connection with both self and other (not killing the other off in retribution for the hurt caused, and not cutting off from the core in an attempt to avoid suffering); this constitutes the process of separation, growth and secure attachment. We are able to find good in other things and perhaps, at times, in everything.
The frame, the flow and fragmentation
So, in order to manage our sensitivity and attachment needs, we develop frames which embody sets of expectations and ways of behaving, from which we automatically live, without being consciously aware of them - internal working models, ways of being with others, implicit relational knowings, as John Bowlby, Daniel Stern and Karen Lyons-Ruth have variously called them. These frames constitute our ego structures, and provide some stability and a continuity of being, in contrast to separate, fragmentary experiences that could be both sublime or terrifying (see below). They can shield us, for better and for worse, from what is going on at that particular moment, both in our inner worlds and/or in our real-world relationships.
Although these frames have been vital in helping us survive and manage our particular early environments, they are inherently limiting - they are solid/fixed frames of behaviour rather than ways of being that allow us to adapt to the ever-changing, dynamic flow of experience - and at some key points in life they may need to be challenged and broken from. The teenage years and midlife crises are particular examples of these, but these patterns may need to be challenged at any time and, perhaps, a shift in the centre of gravity of the personality achieved.
As depicted by the Fool card in tarot, when we break from the frame we step into the unknown, we live in the moment, we live from the flow, following our true path, living from our true selves. This brings uncertainty, yet each new moment brings a new fragment of experience, the world experienced fully, afresh. This accords with the ancient wisdom of Taoism. It is treading our own particular, unique path.
These moments will likely be different and varied, but sometimes dissonant, and some can be intensely difficult to bear; for example, feelings of profound isolation, rejection, alienation, hurt, shame or suicidal impulses. If these states are unfamiliar to us (and to the extent that we live in the moment they can constitute our entire experience), it can feel that we are terrifyingly fragmenting and falling apart. There is an important challenge to gather up these fragments and expand the range of experiences that we can bear, encompass, understand and link - in short, integrate.
So, we do still need frames of some kind to contain us and protects us while we digest these feelings and experiences, to help us be less exposed, to give us continuity, and to make life more manageable and steer away from danger and exploitation. This may be an internal frame of understanding, which allows us to process our feelings more easily and/or, an external frame, such as a supportive relationship, routines and practices of exercise and focus, the containment of working towards a heartfelt goal that provides direction and purpose, or even a monastery!
Overall though, our frames can only too readily close down experience, life, exploration and vitality. For example, in enshrining behaviours which protect us against the experiences of rejection, the frame can make us feel that we are not and never could be wanted, even when this may not accord with actual life in the present. This makes our reactions seem unrealistic and paranoid, even though they are born out of the original sensitivity and experiences of the core self, or are defences against the potential dismissive-shaming reactions of others.
One of the primary roles of our ego is to protect us against distress and suffering, and the frames that we construct, which constitute our ego/superego/persona matrix, help us to relate to our particular environment; however they need to be continually adjusted and expanded, and in some ways transcended so that we are not living from the frame but from the flow, as I have described above. As Freud said, the process of maturation is about moving from the pleasure principle, where we wish to avoid pain and seek out pleasure, to the reality principle, where we are able to encompass the distress and suffering, as well as the joys, discoveries and enlivenment of everyday life.
Overall this is the process of incarnation - how much are we able to allow ourselves to exist, to manifest ourselves, to experience life fully, as it is, bearing the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and allowing ourselves to be, rather than not to be?
Both the particular personalities of our caregivers, our family culture and the wider social culture, determines, embodies and constitutes what is seen as acceptable, and what we are therefore pressured to ‘kill off’. The process of socialisation in a culture (both familial and social), which does not reflect or embrace our human nature as it truly is (or as truly as possible), can bring about a terrible loss of self. This will cause individuals to live unhappy, unfulfilled lives, although the parts of the self that are split off may well return in more or less explicit rebellious acts against the cultural norms, in the service of wholeness, truth, freedom and vitality. The return of other-gendered parts of ourselves or other forms of sexuality that our parental or wider culture did not accept, but which feel deeply and intrinsically true parts of ourselves, would be examples of this.
Through these challenges to, and outgrowths from, the norm, culture develops. Such developments do not always facilitate our well-being, but may signify a return to primitive forms of being that have irrupted from the unconscious that were not previously able to be accepted, developed and integrated; for example, authoritarian, fundamentalist, totalitarian and despotic ways of being, based on the primitive wish to protect ourselves from suffering through exercising power and control over others. One might hope that, over time, there is a benign evolution of societies, cultures and individuals, but I believe that this requires us to deeply inhabit our true selves and understand their shadow aspects and struggles - to integrate our core selves.
There has been a cultural development in Western nations, broadly speaking, over the last 60 years, that has put us a lot more in touch with the core parts of ourselves, not least through a greater recognition of the individual in their own right, 'the child' and better parenting practices. This has been accompanied by an alteration in cultural / societal structures, as well as a loss of trust in the traditional structures, such as politics and religion. This has made the need to understand these energies and challenges all the more pressing and imperative, as new understandings and frames/structures are needed.
To conclude: we are drawn to live from our core by the call to truth, vitality and wholeness. However, to follow the call and to live from our true selves is to walk the more difficult path, to overcome the self-protective voice which wants us to stick to the known paths and instead to embrace the unknown and to trust to our calling. This is not to trust that everything will go easily or comfortably for us, but it is to live with purpose from our deepest selves, from our souls, even when this is in conflict with the prevailing collective culture (as Jung said was inevitable in the process of individuation).
This is a challenging path, which requires us to face and navigate the most powerful and foundational forces of our nature. As Jung put it: ‘Only the man who can consciously assent to the inner voice becomes a personality; but if he succumbs to it he will be swept away by the blind flux of psychic events and be destroyed’ (Jung 1934, paragraph 308). In order to prevent ourselves being ‘swept away’, we are required to navigate these issues with humility, an acceptance of suffering and a realistic sense of agency, rather than walling ourselves off in an inflated way, seeking power and control and blaming others for any discomfort or distress.
The moral dimension
If we can bear the suffering due to us, we can develop a benign frame, encompassing a benign attitude and outlook. Those who are not able to encompass the openness and sensitivity of the core self, and opt for control and evacuation, making the other person suffer, turn these sublime forces of light into darkness. There is therefore a moral dimension to this path and we know, deep inside (as is perhaps signalled by our dreams), when we have evaded responsibility for what is ours, and somewhere we feel guilty or spiritually sick. The preparedness to suffer, and to recognise and accept our vulnerability, allows us to experience this deep connectedness to ourselves and others in a positive, benign, compassionate frame.
Our moral sense comes not from a set of rules, but from a deep recognition that the other is as ourselves, from which arises a wish to cherish and nurture them and resonate with them in their suffering. It is this that is healing, rather than proscribing behaviours in an attempt to achieve an idealised world, free from suffering. The balance between restoring the connection with our core selves and bringing that benignly into relationship with others is the ongoing, never-completed work of life, which takes a lifetime.
This is an extremely brief and rather dense overview of what is the profound, complex and multifaceted issue of being human. I hope I have shown how our basic human nature, with its empathic heart and soul, can account for our most sublime and sometimes mystical experiences of connection, knowing and belonging, yet also how this relates to our struggles with attachment, relationship and profound psychological difficulties. This overview is born of personal experience and my attempt to understand, navigate, and sometimes simply survive these experiences. I know how ‘mad, bad and difficult to know’ human beings can be, as well as how sublime, precious, and beautiful they are, and how fulfilling life can be.
I have touched on some of the many theories, theorists and traditions that have described these experiences in their own idioms before, but have not been interested to delineate the similarities with and differences from those positions here, although I believe they do accord in many ways with many of them. I hope to unpack these issues more fully, and explore some of the thousands of paths related to the core, in future writings.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss, Volume 1: Attachment. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Damasio, A. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens - Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. London; Vintage.
Jung, C.G. (1934). ‘The development of personality’, in Collected Works Volume 17.
Knox, J. (2011). Self-Agency in Psychotherapy - Attachment, Autonomy and Intimacy. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Lyons-Ruth, K. (1998). 'Implicit Relational Knowing: its role in development and psychoanalytic treatment'. In: BCPSG, Change in Psychotherapy: a Unifying Paradigm (pp. 30-53), New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience - The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stern, D.N. (1985/1998). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: a View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. London & New York: Karnac.