Adam Blatner, M.D.

(Revised, March 29, 2006)

The term, "self," is used in many ways. I think the most useful way to think about "self" is as an experience, and actually, a mixture of illusions about who one is (i.e., what the philosopher George Herbert Mead called the "Me") and the essential "I" awareness or subjective capacity, which itself has no name-able qualities.

There is no specific location for the self as a cluster of neurons or identifiable circuits in the brain. Rather, it seems to be a sense of oneself, a sense that one's being is coherent in time, space, and identity. The value of this formulation is that it permits us to examine the phenomena associated with feeling more or less "together," "real," "meaningfully present," or valued as "good"--or even "bad," for that matter. Associated with these feelings is the illusion of stability, although the self isn't all that stable in fact. (It goes away to some varying degree in sleep, for example, and also in certain altered states of consciousness.) This sense of self may also be usefully conceptualized as an aggregate experience, generated by a number of functions of mind in relationship to body, events in life, relations with others, and identifications with various societal trends, groups, causes, etc. 

The coordinating function is hard-wired, it is one of the most basic instincts--to experience oneself as a coherent whole, a subject with an identity. That function is what Jung calls the archetypal function of the self. (Link to my paper on the relevance of the concept of archetypes.) There's a deep instinctual function that generates this self experience, in spite of other subtle tendencies to dilute the full presence of  self in the moment. (To buffer the self from shame, fear, and overload, the mind also generates little inner  screens or figurative compartments that pretend not to be as vividly subject to unpleasant emotions. The defense mechanisms noted by Freud, his daughter, and later psychoanalysts, include dissociation, de-personalization, de-realization, splitting, and so forth, and the point to note is that normal people can be using these adjusting inner games unconsciously and to a mild degree--quite short of any obvious psychopathology.

In this view, the most obvious and prevalent function of the self is a sequential identification with one's roles or part-selves. In other words, in spite of behaving and even thinking in different ways in different role relationships and contexts, people tend to think of themselves as being on the whole relatively consistent. I still think and feel like myself, and that I'm the same person, even though others might perceive me in different ways in different settings. So that is how the self-ing part of the ego functions.

This dynamic--the construction and maintenance of a coherent sense of self--was thought to be a primary need, more important even than the sexual drive, by the psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut (1991). His work, developed and first written about in the 1970s, became increasingly popular among many therapists in the 1980s, and was the foundation of a sub-school called "Self Psychology." (In my opinion, though, while Kohut's insight is valid insofar as its bringing to the fore the vital importance of the self-ing dynamic, I don't think that we have to give priority to  this need in all roles. Indeed, as I'll note later, there are activities in which the sense of self dissolves somewhat, and in certain contexts, this is experienced as especially pleasurable. Also, I see other major needs as equally motivating, some being more so for some people, others for other people. For example, another sub-field within psychoanalysis called the "Object Relations" school of thought posits that the primary need is for a sense of being in relation with significant others. Or there is the non-Freudian school of Alfred Adler's individual psychology, that posits the key dynamic of people having a need for feeling effective in the world–the opposite of feelings of inferiority. There are numerous other theories of "primary" motivation. I see them all as partially correct– reminiscent of the story of the blind men who met an elephant.)

In this paper I want to note the kinds of experiences that can build up the sense of self (and thus consider this to be a verb-like category, "self-ing"). Also, by implication, the absence, lack, neglect, or contradiction of activities and experiences that enhance the sense of self may (or may not) actively detract from that sense of self as valued or coherent. Then I'll remark on some activities (which I place in a novel category called "de-selfing") in which people actively relinquish those cues that reinforce the sense of self.

The value of this view of "self-ing" as a dynamic constructive process is that we can then attend to the many component activities that can contribute to or detract from this experience of self-as-coherent-and-valued. Becoming alert to these factors in turn helps us to consciously work with them for conscious purposes.

A Pluralistic Model of Mind

I've become sensitive to the way the mind in some ways functions more like a multi-faceted system, or as Robert Fulghum (1993, pp 8-10) calls it, "the committee." He writes:
 "There's a ventriloquist's dummy, as chairman...and a wise old person, a mechanic, demons, a fool, a scientist, comedian, musician, dancer, athlete, magician, professor, a Romeo, censor, police officer, fire fighter.."  "the disunited states of myself...and the town meeting is always in session."
Others have also spoken to this pluralistic model. I find applied role theory to be especially useful in addressing these dynamics (Blatner, 2000, pp. 169-176). Richard Schwartz (1995), treats the individual person as if he or she were more like an "internal family." Rowan (1990) writes about everyone having "sub-personalities."

At the same time, people operate to coordinate and manage this diverse set of needs, and these coordinating or executive functions are for most people equally prevalent. My formulation for the "Multiple Personality Disorder" (now termed "Dissociative Identity Disorder" by the official psychiatric diagnostic manual) is that the various sub-personalities aren't so much the problem as the abdication of the central coordinating functions!  The healing isn't to "get rid of" problematic roles so much as to add a healthier capacity to negotiate and integrate their sometimes competing needs. So my view isn't that the mind is either plural or unified, but both, and a bit more this minute and less the next. (I actually advocate a process I've playfully termed "multiple personality order"!)

Factors Affecting the Sense of Self

One way to consider diagnosis at a deeper level–to really understand what is happening with another person–is to assess the various kinds of things that might be supporting or detracting from the sense of self. Based on this, it may be possible to more consciously repair deficiencies or residues of trauma, or to otherwise participate in a more holistic approach to healing. (These categories may also have relevance in thinking about child-rearing and education.)

1. Body Tone: Increased muscular tone leads to an increased sense of coherence. Behaving in an angry fashion adds an illusion of power and social significance. For people who are suffering from post-traumatic disorders, relaxation and loss of tone may be associated with vulnerability.

2. Activity: Related to the first item, simply being active rather than passive in dealing with life can foster a sense of personal effectiveness. Dance and movement therapy can help promote sensory awareness and validation for a re-grounding in a more relaxed yet vibrantly alive state of being.

3. Competence: Every activity which can engender some sense of mastery serves as an anchor for a growing identity. Validation from others is an important adjunct to this phenomenon.

4. Self-control: Related to #3, acts which emphasize internal boundaries increase the sense of personal autonomy. Thus, learning to grasp, to walk, to learn to use the toilet, to control one's temper, to tolerate frustration, and other forms of self-discipline all promote a deeper sense of the self as coherent and effective.

5. Appearance. How one feels about one's body and how it is seen as valued, strong, graceful, beautiful, cute, big, etc.–along with clothes–classy, exclusive, original, expensive, outrageous, cool, etc.-- all adds to the sense of self–or detracts.

6. Recognition: Being acknowledged by others, feeling truly "seen," "known," "heard," as oneself, as different and valued, leads to an increased awareness of the self as (in a good way) separate from others. If the feedback tends to be excessively harsh or associated with a quality of rejection, the individual may develop a correspondingly vulnerable sense of self. In turn, this can lead to an excessive degree of self-consciousness or, on the contrary, a condition of narcissitic entitlement. Moreover, I suspect that there are subtle differences in the quality of identity generated in different kinds of relationships, one-to-one not being the equivalent of triadic or small group experiences.

7. Preferences: Identity and autonomy are fostered if the individual is helped to clarify and be gratified in expressing preferences. This includes respect for the person rejecting what is disliked. In addition to temperament and social pressures, the availability of opportunities for this exercise is an important variable.

8. Differentiation: As a corollary of the expression of preferences, it is helpful in constructing a sense of self for children and adolescents to receive validation for the value in being different from their family and peers. "Yes, you like this kind of music." A related activity or experience is that of finding like-minded others who are in some ways different from the general population, and becoming involved in clubs or special interest groups.

9. Philosophy: Even children understand and are supported by hearing stories about their origins and destination, the cosmology which is imbedded in tradition. Often religion and national history carries some of these implicit messages, and they add to the person's sense of belonging and purpose. Of course, as with all of these variables, it should be noted that many children are growing up without some important building blocks of the sense of self.

By philosophy, I mean the introduction of a rational, languaged component to the schema-building that goes on in life development. It applies to the elderly as well as the very young. Any activity in which there is some conscious putting together of otherwise fragmented experiences, some coordination of values, whether rationally or in story or play, poetry or art, all helps in selfing, but this item refers to the articulation of belief systems, attitudes, values, assessments of the way the world is, all of which then imply who one "is" in this scheme of things.

10. Boundary-Making: Having "a room of one's own," a desk that is not intruded on, certain experiences in which one feels one can modulate how much others may enter or know–all add to the sense of self. Privacy, territory, and feeling respected all are outgrowths of an implicit distance and "boundary" which is socially constructed between individuals. The parents' blurring of boundaries during the child's development of autonomy has been found to be a major source of psychopathology. Most important, the individual needs to learn skills for asserting boundaries, needs, preferences, etc. Children should not be expected to shift their attention at the moment and in whatever direction their parents desire.

11. Possessions: Another corollary of differentiation and boundary making is the natural tendency for children to begin to identify certain toys as "mine," as an expression of attachment as well as autonomy. Some degree of respect for this activity is important.

12. Identifications: The sense of self is in large part constructed through either realistic or imagined affiliations with parental figures, beloved grandparents, and, as time goes on, with favorite teams, athletes, performing artists, subculture (or "lifestyle"), region, nation, organization, etc. Indeed, the healing power of grief is the affirmation of the internalization of the best qualities of the person who has been lost, which is a form of identification.

13. Social Status: As an extension of the previous theme, recognition as competent, as belonging to a valued group, as being in a valued role, all are factors in the normal growth of the sense of self. Although in many ways these early identifications need to be transcended, it is natural for children to use such items as clothes, money, social class, race, physical characteristics, religion, and other variables as anchor points in their growing sense of identity.

14. Being Useful: Another variation of identification is the sense of participating in the growth and creativity of the other, which is a symbolic form of psychic expansion and inclusiveness. Helping mommy generates a sense of "we-ness" which sets the stage for empathy and altruism (i.e., "de-selfing") even as it expands and deepens the child's sense of self.

15. Fantasy: There is great value in being able to experience and be validated in imagining the self in roles which transcend the actual. Playing kings, monsters, wizards, superheroes, and other figures not only compensate for feelings of realistic vulnerability, but more important, offer a vehicle for sublimation and living on more dimensions than the ordinary. Through the activation of the imaginal realm, the person also generates personal symbols, associations with "totem-like" allies in the form of animals, fictional or historical characters, and others who in turn expand the growing identity. The integration of the imaginal dimension of the psyche is the basis for play, art, spirituality, and other activities which give the most humanistic qualities to life (Blatner & Blatner, 1997).

16. Integration: The more people are helped to find activities which can include different facets of their lives, ther more this weaving together serves as a strengthening of their selfing. When a child can fantasize and have that validated by a parent, and can combine that activity with drawing and the expression of preferences, that child experiences an integrative process which is a powerful component of the development of a healthy and realistic sense of self.

17. Creativity. Introducing a measure of novelty adds to the sense of oneself as a creator, an active participant in life. On the other hand, the domination of habit or having to work in routine jobs tends to detract from the sense of self as valued and coherent.

18. Character Roles. (This is different from that elusive idea of ‘having character'). Used in a dramaturgical sense, it refers to the way some folks really get into certain kinds of roles, such as when Snoopy (the dog in the Peanuts cartoon) plays "Joe Cool." Other roles can also become habitual and be extended to most life situations– which generally isn't all that healthy, in my opinion. I'm talking about always being the joker, the hostess, the friendly one, the group cynic, etc.

19. Vocation: Feeling passionate about a cause, a type of work, feeling "called," discovering a personal mission, and feeling that one can apply one's talents to that end, all are elements in constructing a sense of self. On the other hand, aimlessness is a component of anomie.

20. Imagination: Developing a rich inner life, populated with characters whom one has created oneself, or favorite characters from literature or television, can promote the sense of self (Blatner & Blatner, 1997; Watkins, 1986). Sometimes this process can be pathological, with an over-identification taking on eccentric or pathological elements. (Who am I this time book?)

21. Self-expression: Externalizing images, impulses, thoughts, and personal symbols results in those expressions being in a sense objectified. They seem to have a greater reality than when simply floating around in the mind. What is expressed is liberated from the internal constraints of inhibitions, doubts, and conflicting cognitions. When these expressions are witnessed by others, and more, when they are validated by others, or, even better, come to be associated with language, they become personal symbols and foundations of a vital identity. When a person adds style, originality, and one's own talent to what is expressed, it enhances the sense of self even more. Another aspect of this is the extra dimensionality that the arts offer, a measure of drama,  spice, romance, style, adventure, excitement, and the like.

22. Depth. Developing a mental and emotional connection with the depth of the psyche, through contemplation, writing, poetry, meditation, dialogue, etc., is, I think, the healthiest and most resilient form of selfing.

"True Self" and "False Self"

These terms have been used by psychoanalysts and psychologists to emphasize the need for people to reclaim their more enduring traits, and to challenge or relinquish traits that are primarily identifications adopted to please others–especially when done so in earlier life and which have become habitual and unconscious (i.e., the "false self.")

The trouble with these terms, I think, is that there are parts that are somewhat "true" mixed with the "false," and vice versa. So that one's true self as experienced in psychotherapy at age twenty-five may need to be again re-evaluated ten or twenty years later (if not sooner). Perhaps it is better to use such loaded words as "true" and "false" lightly, and think of these as being on a continuum, with a life-goal being an ongoing process of discovering, refining, and creating what seems to be a little more true, compared to before. Also, sometimes this involves going back and redeeming some elements that were rejected as part of the "false self."

Jung's term, "persona" referred to the archetypal function that senses what is socially desirable and strives to meet it, either by conforming or clearly non-conforming (though the nonconformity needs to be somehow coherent). The psyche itself isn't so neat, so it needs someone to manage the "store-front." When people come to identify with their persona, that leads to a kind of "false self." A sub-type of this is the problem of pathological narcissism, in which one's sense of value is tied up in the more superficial signs of value, rather than being able to access a sense of value from one's own depths. This leads to a relative narrowing of acceptable roles and a decrease in interpersonal and life flexibility.


The construction of the sense of self should not be thought of as the only goal in personality development. There are other occasions in which the ability to let go of  or forget that sense of self is a requirement or expression of a more adaptive attitude. I use the term "de-selfing" to refer to activities which consciously, intentionally, and constructively reduce the experience of self. This process is also a natural and archetypal function, part of healthy development. For example, in infancy the baby learns to both grab on and let go, of feelings as well as of objects. If there is a fairly coherent and resilient sense of self in the background, learning how to let go of self-consciousness becomes a more mature and advanced skill. It counters tendencies towards excessive self-control, selfishness, and egocentricity. Examples of de-selfing include meditation, service to others, self-sacrifice, absorption in the act itself rather than in the concern about how well one is doing.

So, too, would be those activities in which spontaneity is a primary value, improvisational drama, singing, dancing, and certain sports. Deselfing is part of what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls "flow." Ecstasy involves the capacity to let go of self-awareness, and its word root in Latin means "standing outside"–referring to being beyond the conventional experience of self. Certain activities, from playing jazz to athletic and sports endeavors, are best enjoyed and most competent when a certain balance of effort and letting go may be achieved.

Even wholehearted involvement in a sport, or watching a sport, full absorption in reading a book or watching a play, these and similar activities represent the capacity of the mind to in a healthy way let go of self-consciousness and join in an identification with the process. Going from the mundane to the sublime, perhaps the most significant conscious application of the activity of de-selfing is that of meditation or other related activities in the pursuit of spiritual development and even mystical experience.

It should be noted that deselfing refers to a conscious, willed letting-go, and subtly assumes a residual capacity to rapidly regain self-control should the circumstances arise. Without that backup ability, one feels terrifyingly out of control. This is the "bad trip" of a drug- fever- or other physiologically dysfunctionally-induced delirium. Some psychotic breakdowns are similarly experienced as profoundly upsetting. However, the point here is that, while access to a coherent sense of self is important, selfing activities need not dominate one's life.

Self as Servant of the Soul

 Perhaps the most revolutionary and transformative vision of the self-concept in the coming years is that of reversing the sense of being the "boss" to that of being the "servant" of the rest of the system, the various parts, including the subconscious mind-body. In the modern era, self-control became overvalued. The source of spiritual guidance was given lip service, but because it was located "out there," the immediacy of such guidance was limited.

 With the advent of psychology, and the gradual (1960s and beyond) breakdown of the artificial and unfortunate separation of psychology and spirituality, the subconscious mind is becoming recognized not as merely the repository of the disowned qualities, the objects of repression, as Freud suggested, but rather, as Jung noted, a vast and still largely mysterious realm that is also the source of wisdom, creativity, intuition, and spiritual connectedness. (Spirituality is here defined as the activity of developing one's relationship with the Greater Wholeness of Being, or perhaps the activity of deepening one's sense of connectedness with God, by whatever name this greater Process is called.)

From this emerging appreciation of the extent and power of the subconscious mind, and its potentially positive nature, it becomes useful to reverse the idea that we (our familiar ego-selves) "have" souls, and instead recognize and work from the assumption that our souls "have" us!  This idea has also been stated as "What if instead of our thinking that we are physical beings who have spiritual experiences, we consider that we are spiritual beings having physical experiences?"

The self then becomes the small portion of the mind that expresses the greater potential, the soul, which is the individualized form of Spirit, all the mysterious sources of insight and energy, not yet focused in the illusion of individuality and personality. The self may tap into this unending source, using imagination, intuition, allowing subtle cues to inform and guide the ongoing construction of ideas, attitudes, and behaviors.

 This idea is more in keeping with many of the South Asian psycho-spiritual practices, such as are advocated by the tradition of Yoga or some types of Buddhism. Western religions have some contemplative traditions also, which are coming to exert a gradually increasing influence on the greater culture. In these various traditions, interestingly, the term Self, with a capital S, has been used to refer to that central, observing, potentially executive function which precedes all the "layers" of thoughts and beliefs, habits of mind and patterns of behavior that in their aggregate contribute to that sense of "self" (with a small s) that we more conventionally recognize as ourselves.

 The height of maturation, then, is to learn to shift our essential identity to this deeper and more resilient core, the Self, which doesn't require most of the factors of selfing for its maintenance. This psychological step is also a spiritual step, of course.


In the coming years, the nature of self, in light of developments in psychology and related fields, can become at once both wider and deeper. By recognizing the variety of ways of constructing the self, psychotherapists and educators may be able to better help people to remedy deficiencies and intentionally construct a more resilient self-concept. When this is better established, the self then can better function as a framework for other activities, artistic, spiritual, and, especially important, socially active, which, paradoxically, require a measure of deselfing, letting go of the need to use experience to enhance the sense of self. Ultimately, by grounding the self in the deeper source of creative mind, the self can become a more resilient process that need not resort to narcissistic, self-inflating (and ultimately self-defeating) maneuvers in order to adapt to an increasingly changing world.


Blatner, A. (1997b). The Implications of Postmodernism for Psychotherapy. Individual Psychology, 53(4), 476-482.

Blatner, A. (2000). Applied Role Theory. In Foundations of Psychodrama: History, theory & practice. (4th ed.) New York: Springer.

Blatner, A. & Blatner, A. (1997). The art of play: Helping adults reclaim imagination and spontaneity.  Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel-Taylor & Francis.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Fulghum, R. (1993). Maybe (maybe not). New York: Villard Books (Random House)

Kohut, H. (1991). The search for the self. Collected papers. P. H. Horstein (ed.). Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Rowan, J. (1990). Subpersonalities. London & New York: Routledge.

Schwartz, R. (1995). Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford.

Watkins, Mary. (1986). Invisible Guests: The Development of Imaginal Dialogue. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press

For responses, email me at adam@blatner.com

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