Saturday, January 23, 2016

In-house #4: The self

I wonder how many clients say to their therapist – “I don’t know who I am,” or “What if I find out that there’s no real self in there?”  One reason I wonder this is my pride – or is it fear? – that the kind of work I do might bring up these questions in people who would otherwise never think of them.  Not long ago a highly successful young man got the feeling that he is living on autopilot, with the controls set by unknown forces.  More recently a new mother described her sense of being detached from all the “happy” people around her, of being “just there.”  From there, we found our way to understandings about the out-of-sync-ness a child may sense when his organic feelings have been submerged.  With the passage of time he becomes more distant from his home, his inchoate self.  He is more an outcast lost in the present world.

I think that this phenomenon – the compromised existence of Self – is the essence of psychopathology.  Its cosmic-ness, its gravity undermine all psychiatric categories.  It effectively replaces them.  Anxious and depressed people have lost, or never had, the spontaneous, active and loved self.  Anorexic girls are building an identity of sick specialness and defiance to replace a failed self.  The self of codependent caregivers is a reflection of others.  The domestically violent man – really a little boy – stalks and clings to, owns and needs the identity of mother and woman grafted into his selfless soul.  Personality disorders are conceived in the first three years of life, the failure of "the psychological birth of the human infant."*  Alcohol chemically paints an empty self; chocolate or binged food fills it; vaporous intellect the kind that condones priestly pedophiles or supports pseudo-science or racism replaces it.  Money and material things substitute for self-ego.  Hyper- or indiscriminate sexuality soothes the pain of the child’s absence of love; the absence starved the self.  “Man’s search for meaning”** is the search for a prosthetic meaning core, because the real core – the nurtured self – was ungrown in childhood.

We can “do” therapy to the various presenting problems.  But the more we look for their sources, the more necessarily we’ll run into the dissipated fog of a self, the youngster who lost interests, who lost initiative but for defiance, who fell into the parents’ pool of sickness and neediness, their requests and expectations.  And if we go there – the essential wound needing to be addressed – we’re in a place as abysmal as our own self, and we’re holding a tenuously created person who can’t be let go, at least not without assurances that he is built upon something real.

When a client says to you, “I don’t know who I am,” understand that he is identifying nonexistence as stunning as it would be if the universe suffered nonexistence instead of existence.

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* Margaret Mahler's seminal book.

** The title of Viktor E. Frankl's well-known book.

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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.