Sunday, February 1, 2015

Real self (written at a noisy Whole Foods Market café)

Some schools of psychology, systems of therapy, and practicing clinicians deal in the “real self.”  I don’t know close to the whole history, but I’ve seen the construct was a rich part of Karen Horney’s thinking one generation after Freud.  My knowledge skips to Helene Deutsch with her “as if personality,”* then leaps to Masterson’s theory of personality disorder and Janov’s primal therapy of neurosis, basically defined as the false self’s seeking symbolic satisfaction – and pain or tension discharge – of repressed unmet needs of childhood.

I see the false or unreal self as what a child becomes when his parents do not respect his feelings.  A child represses and loses himself if his expressions fall into the abyss of parents’ deafness, or are contemned or prohibited, or if the inchoate Self is overwhelmed away in birth trauma or in René Spitz’s anaclitic depression.**  What endures is a personality of defenses and self-soothing, and a primordial or toxic momentum.

Actually, I used to believe the Self could be slid away to oblivion and death this easily.  But I may have to respect Masterson’s idea that there could be a part-genetic gift of the real self, as I know a former client whose soul should have been killed*** by his mother’s poison, yet it has emerged in a beautiful way a couple decades later.

I do not tell clients they are a false self (which would be quite evil and incompetent), but may suggest that they grew an adaptive persona in a rocky childhood terrain, and that in order to combat their depression or identity diffuseness they may need to search for their smoldering fire, their latent loves or likes.  Looking at some adult’s lostness is to see a tangible and actionable thing, while to contemplate the underlying flaw – the unreal self – is to see more but touch nothing.  It’s the idea of air.

Only just recently have I discovered another field of productivity in the work of the real self: the child’s and adolescent’s losing of it.  A young man, sixteen, who came here because of his body image depression, said out of the blue that he becomes his friends’ or peers’ personality points when he is with them.  He doesn’t have a self he is grounded in.  Not in touch historically with his feelings – their push, their biological conviction – and therefore being a younger child that remains in intimidated awe of any person’s ego force, he conforms and becomes them.  And he hates it.

Thank goodness he does, because that hate is the one-dimensional plane, the watchman of his submerged real self that has stayed awake to save him.  What he must do is look for the molecules deep below the windy surface of his ocean, the molecules that say “no” or “yes,” “I want” or “I need this.”  Holding on to these buried radical self-elements, he will not pretend to have an adolescent feeling the others have, or to like a sport that his friends like; he will not find himself going with them where he doesn’t want to go.  He will smile or frown against the current, put his brakes on in the gale of consensus.  He will be disinterring, and building, a Self.

Many of us believe we’ve seen a false self.  Hillary Clinton comes off to many as a contrived personality, though Mitt Romney may have been caught more often adapting his convictions to the moment.  Politicians, the lot of them, have been branded as narcissists whose altruism is a con.  What matters for psychotherapy is where this problem comes from, and especially what we may do for a child slipping into the as-if world.  Watch for the little boy conforming to his friends, and to you, parent.  See if he is quieting in body and spirit, in a quiet and depressed home.  Be aware that fear – an anxious home atmosphere – can drain the pool of an infant’s or child’s self-energy.  Notice if he loses interest.  This may, per the DSM bible, be a sign of depression.  But a child’s depression is a sign of her identity flagging and folding, someday disappearing.

Nurturing and honoring the child’s real self is probably the most critical thing we can do.

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* Helene Deutsch’s “as if” personality --

** René Spitz’s concept of anaclitic depression --

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.