Adam Blatner, M.D.

We are entering an era in which a significant trend will be toward the conscious transformation of consciousness itself. This is the product of a number of recent developments in the fields associated with dynamic psychology, brain physiology, social psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and related fields.. All of these areas give an element of depth to the more general field of future studies. One aspect that deserves a measure of reconsideration is the nature of the "self," about which I would suggest four ideas that have a goodly number of practical implications:

  1. While it's natural for people to feel as if their "self" is unified, in fact that experience is the product of a variety of activities.
  2. The mind is best thought of as a system with many sub-parts and roles and the power to learn to manage this pluralistic nature effectively.
  3. There is a place for "deselfing," cultivating experiences that release the sense of self.
  4. The healthiest view of self is as the servant of the creative subconscious, which is also the soul.

The self is that complex of feelings and thoughts about who one "is," an experience which involves the sense of (1) coherence-that one is somewhat unified rather than fragmented; (2) continuity-that one has been and will be essentially the same as one is; and (3) value, that one can feel somewhat good about oneself, whether or not that is according to general societal standards. The sense of self fluctuates in awareness, depending on the attention that is focused on one's own existence, performance, or how one is being valued by others.

The mind has an innate tendency to generate this sense of self and associate it with the corresponding agency of will and the source of perception. This is what C.G. Jung called an "archetypal" function, which expresses the imaginal and cognitive expression of a basic instinct. To generate a sense of a unified personality, a function that I call "selfing," is as natural as the instinct of a baby's attachment to a mother or a mother's nurturing instinct toward her infant. However, although the self seems to the individual to be somewhat unified, the function of promoting and maintaining that impression, "selfing," is not unified, but rather arises from many different streams of simultaneous operations, physical, mental, social, and cultural. That these activities are experienced by the mind as a unity is an illusion. Note, then, that there is no thing-like self, but rather an ongoing process, selfing, more a verb than a noun. People subconsciously construct this experience of coherence, value, and identity, which then becomes the foundation or mental framework for other attitudes and beliefs, based on the expectations, implications, and role definitions of one's imagined identity.

One interesting "school" within the broader field of psychoanalysis is called "Self Psychology," developed in the 1970s and 1980s by Heinz Kohut and his followers. This school works from a significant revision to Freud's theory: Instead of the sexual drive being the principle source of motivation, the primary drive now is viewed as the need to form and maintain a coherent and valued self. Self psychology then goes on to explain many different psychological problems as attempts to restore this sense of self as coherent or valued in the face of events which weaken that experience. Personally, I think that while they have a point, there are also a fair number of other motives, and having to construct a theory that gives primacy to just one is unnecessarily artificial. Still, the Self psychology school notes an important dynamic, and many other writers have also addressed the mystery of the self-concept. My own approach involves noting the various factors that go into selfing, the constructing the sense of self.

Factors Affecting the Sense of Self

By understanding the variety and number of types of processes which support the sense of self, each factor may then be used in therapy for developing a more comprehensive diagnosis and treatment plan, or in education and child rearing to produce more psychosocially resilient youngsters. Here are some of those activities:

1. Body tone and muscular tension.

2. Activity, rather than passivity, mental or physical, and especially intentional or focused activity-but this needs to be intentional, willed activity, in contrast with activity which is merely reactive, automatic, or impulsive.

3. Creativity, adding novelty, instead of behaving in just a habitual or repetitive fashion.

4. Developing one's sense of how one appears to others, interest in clothes, adornement, posture, facial expression, and interest in looking in the mirror.

5. Remembering, and especially re-telling stories about one's own life.

6. Having possessions which carry some sense of personal significance.

7. Having "boundaries," in the sense of personal "territory," some semblance of privacy, the prerogative of secrecy, etc., and having these respected by significant others.

8. Learning to identify one's own preferences in color, taste, music, clothes, interests, and other elements of individuality.

9. Struggling towards and achieving skill mastery, experiencing competence in an increasingly wider circle of roles, in contrast to being overprotected or pampered.

10. Developing opinions, thinking about social as well as personal problems in contrast to told what to think.

11. Identification with family, or larger group's social roles-- age, race, religion, ethnicity, parents' occupations, socio-economic class, military or social rank, etc.

12. Being validated as especially competent, original, or otherwise valued in all the other forms of selfing.

13. Having relatively close relationships who then are subconsciously experienced as an extension of the self.

14. Finding like-minded others who are in some ways different from the general population, and becoming involved in clubs or special interest groups.

15. Discovering that one can integrate different interests, abilities, or seemingly divergent aspects of oneself in certain new roles.

16. Developing a broader sense of the meaning of one's life, where and how one belongs in the world, ideals, a purpose, a general religion, philosophy, spiritual path, or certain causes to which one can give allegiance.

17. Finding models, heroes, or others as individuals with whom one can identify, and similarly, finding groups, teams, religions, or any other collective with whom one identifies.

18. Taking on character roles such as the joker, the hostess, the friendly one, the group cynic, etc.

19. Identification with the qualities of significant others who may have died, such as beloved older family or even more distant ancestors.

20. Having specific vocational goals, a sense of primary vocation or working role in the world, or a sense of how one is contributing to the greater good.

21. Developing a rich imaginative life, populated with characters whom one has created oneself, or favorite characters from literature or television.

22. Adding also a variety of dramatic elements which lend a sense of spice, romance, style, adventure, excitement, and the like.

23. Many addictions and quasi-addictions serve to mask a sense of inner emptiness, offering an illusory sense of being alive and exciting. Being angry, envious, and engaging in other of the "deadly sins" also serve to foster an unhealthy sense of self.

24. Developing a mental and emotional connection with the depth of the psyche, which will be discussed further as it is the healthiest form of selfing.

This list is not meant to be complete, but suggestive. Of course, the selfing activities mentioned above have other functions, too. Most are in themselves neither healthy nor unhealthy, but depend on how they are carried out. To an extent they overlap and compensate for each other, but others, if lacking, create an ongoing depleting effect on the sense of self, even if the general program is adequate. If overused, a range of types of psychological or social disturbances may be seen, the symptoms and activities of which serve to prop up a vulnerable sense of self. Educators, community planners, and others may use these ideas in constructing their curricula and programs. At present, many young people are not able to access some of these experiences, or at least they are not equally available to all people.

The Pluralistic Self

A second point is that not only is the self a product of a variety of activities, but also that the ordinary personality, often experienced as unified, is really a more-or-less- well managed aggregate or confederation of roles and parts. It's more like a complex business or what has come to be called a "system" than a nameable type. In the early part of the 20th Century, many psychologists sought to find ways of identifying different personalities according to relatively consistent sets of traits, but this effort has been unproductive. It's more useful to recognize a multi-tiered process, one part exercising monitoring and executive functions, but another wide range of sub-roles which often conflict with each other. It's as if we all carry a committee of many parts in our minds, an inner critic, vulnerable child, doubter, clown, etc.

The executive sub-part is generally associated with the sense of self, but in fact it tends to identify itself with whichever sub-part seems most dominant and pressing. What's needed is to cultivate a greater degree of self-reflection so that the executive function can more consciously choose which roles to play and how to modify the way those roles are played! Incidentally, this process of heightened self-reflection may be thought of as one of the goals of psychotherapy.

When Shakespeare had one of his characters proclaim, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women in it, merely players..," he described life using a dramatic metaphor. Psychodrama and role playing also use this model, because people intuitively understand the idea that actors can at the same time both be somewhat fully involved in their roles and also somewhat "role-distanced" and be capable of separating themselves in order to refine and improve the ways those roles are played, and also to not become personally overinvolved in the roles. The point is that we all need to develop a similar capacity for a degree of non-attachment-which is also one of the goals of the great South Asian psycho-spiritual traditions.

In other words, though "all the world's a stage," we need not be "merely players." The more consciously we play our roles, the more we can play with the way they're played, the more creative and flexible and therefore adaptive we become. The idea is to become somewhat identified with the role of the self as director of a play, allowing all the sub-parts to have their own individuality. Alternatively, we may think of ourselves as the manager or CEO of a complex organization, whose job is to offer both leadership and management in mediating conflict and coordinating behavior among the various departments.

In fact, though, most people play this managerial role in a somewhat mediocre fashion, though it's a skill that can be developed with practice. A number of psychological disturbances may be thought of as really defects in this executive or "meta-role" functioning. That is, it's not the presence of imaginative, fantasy, emotionally passionate, or other intense roles that's the problem, but rather the lack of knowing a means of adaptive and coordinated expression. Sometimes, the problem is that the self has become too narrow, and new roles or role components need to be learned or created. At other times, roles need to be re-evaluated, re-negotiated, re-defined.

The postmodern condition tends to generate in people what Lifton (1993) called a "protean self," which could be either diffuse, vague, and somewhat vulnerable to the currents of cultural and social pressures, or it could be alert, in gentle control, and adaptive to the many varied contexts of a changing and complex world. Those who have been sufficiently traumatized and demoralized have unconsciously abdicated from the managerial meta-role, and some even suffer from a psychiatric condition called "multiple personality disorder," in which the sub-parts take over and sequentially dominate the whole. What's needed, to make a play on words, is a multiple personality order! The point is that it's not the presence of a diversity of parts of the self-these should be celebrated!-but rather, the lack of a coordinating function that, like a good manager, integrates the best contributions of each facet when needed.


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. Ecstasy, "flow," and full spontaneity involves the capacity to let go of self-awareness. Certain activities, from playing jazz to athletic and sports endeavors, are best enjoyed and most competent when effort is balanced by a degree of unselfconscious "letting go."

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, stated differently, the activity of deepening one's sense of connectedness with what in various languages is the general equivalent to what in English is called "God.")

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 cou99rse.


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.

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Adam Blatner, M.D.
103 Crystal Springs Drive
Georgetown, TX 78628-4502

Tel: (512) 864-0516

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