(Psychological Literacy)
Lecture 1: Introduction: Considering Identification
Adam Blatner, M.D.

(This is the first lecture of this 6-lecture module on self-awareness that is part of a longer series on Psychological Literacy, offered to the Senior University Georgetown lifelong learning program, for its Fall 2009 program. Eventually, more of the series will be posted on this website. The first lecture is a general introduction and orientation to the process of self-awareness, posted September 28, 2009)

This series of lectures will include: 1. (this lecture) An orientation to the process of self-awareness.    2. Motivations and Ideals         3. Wiser and More Foolish Coping Maneuvers        4. Body Cues and Other Subtle Perceptions     5. Social Connectedness and Preferences         6. Spiritual Self-Awareness, Meaning and  Conclusion.


Everyone is aware---that's no big deal. But awareness can be developed as a skill set just as talking can be developed by learning a broader vocabulary. The more you know different kinds of things to pay attention to, the more you can choose (or not) to use that information. Self-Awareness also includes a growing and more specific appreciation of the way your self as inner manager and coordinator can be identified as being a little separate from and above or over the many roles you play in life.

The field is vast and I make no claim to have addressed all possible forms of self-awareness. But these general categories make a fine start. If you become aware of types of awareness I don't mention, please correspond with me and we'll work in a supplemental dialogue on another webpage, perhaps, or at least exchange some emails. I'm willing to keep learning, because for me awareness of the limitations of my awareness is connected with a value---the desire to keep learning. So I'm open to input---suggestions for additions, revisions, corrections. Another thing about webpages is that I can change what I write based on your input, so the medium is not as fixed as "hard copy"---words printed on paper. Indeed, the use of web-pages and the internet is an interesting technology. I can encourage you to browse through my other papers and see what catches your fancy. Past lecture series on psychological literacy are available as well as my ideas on many other related and not-so-related subjects. Many of my papers are aimed more at psychotherapists, but many others are also aimed at anyone who wants to read them.

Psychological Literacy

I'm a retired psychiatrist, and you can read about my background by clicking my bio above right. Iatros is the ancient Greek word root for physician, so I'm like a psychologist in some ways, but I went to medical school and specialized in diseases of the mind. I'm also perhaps more sensitive to the mind-body interrelations, the way one can affect the other. I've become especially interested in working out what we can do to prevent illness before it gets started. There have been many pioneers in medicine interested in not just treatment, but also prevention. (I discussed some of these in a series given earlier this year for Senior University Georgetown on stories on the history of medicine, which you can read elsewhere on this website.)

The term "mental hygiene" has also been applied to preventive psychiatry, and in a way that's good, because much that has nothing to do with a psychiatrist's office or clinic or hospital is involved. My own focus is through these lectures and aimed at education. I  would like to harvest the best insights of the many developments in medicine, psychology, psychiatry, and other fields and weave them together so that they can be taught to the general public. I'd like to see these ideas introduced in simple language in secondary schools. I think knowing about practical psychology could make school much less stressful, and more fun.

Indeed, I think we live in an era in which people need practical psychology in order to be more mentally flexible, and we need that because we live in an era of accelerating change---not just technically, but also socially and culturally.

One of the obstacles for this popularization of psychology has been the lack of a common language, something that's more familiar and understandable. I think I've discovered a pretty good candidate for a user-friendly language for psychology that uses the basic concept of role---sort of the way music uses the basic idea of note. People know what roles are, how we play them in various situations. (The technical term for this approach is Applied Role Theory, abbreviated as the acronym, ART). The art of life involves learning how to play our roles more consciously and creatively.

Two Levels of Psychology

One of Shakespeare's more well-known quotes is from a speech given by a character (Jacques) in the play, As You Like It (Act 2, Scene 5): "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women in it, merely players...."    Life is complex, and one can use many metaphors to describe it: Life as battle, as journey, as school... but the metaphor of life as a kind of play or drama is called the "dramaturgical metaphor." The point is that it is useful in many ways to use this metaphor or way of looking at the complexities of life, to think about situations as if they were scenes in a play, and the different people or parts of the situation were roles that could be enacted. (My background in the use of therapeutic role playing or psychodrama clearly influenced my thinking on this.)  The point is that we play many roles---BUT!

Here's the key: We don't have to be "merely" players. With a bit of consciousness-raising, we can also learn to become co-playwrights, co-directors, and audience to our own lives. We can imagine what it's like to be the critics observing the play, or put ourselves into the viewpoints of the other characters. We can expand our self-awareness in very interesting ways!

To make a disclaimer again: At this point and perhaps forever it is impossible to adequately describe the vast complexity of mind in all its permutations. So I am not claiming that the following ideas apply to every aspect of mind. Rather, think of them as temporary tools. (The best dramas and photos are not adequate representatives of the fullness of the dramas of life or the richness of nature---rather, they put a kind of frame around experience so that it can be contemplated by our limited minds. It is not possible to apprehend the everything-ness; we have to focus, attend more to some things and less to others.) So one tool has been that of thinking of the mind as being composed of different parts playing off of each other. Freud did that with id, ego, and superego. Alfred Adler countered that by calling his approach "Individual Psychology," with the focus on on the person alone---that sense of individual---but rather in its word root---not-divided. Adler's angle was to approach people as if their overall attitude could be re-adjusted to be less competitive and more pro-social.

I think they're both right, but working at slightly different levels: Sometimes it's useful to think of the mind as composed of parts---and I don't think there are just those three parts Freud identified. I think each of the roles we play is a part, and that means hundreds or thousands could be imagined. But it's also useful to think of the mind as unified, and one way to synthesize these two views is to recognize it as a system: There can be a governor, president, coordinator, conductor, manager---whatever you want to call that role; and there can be the many roles, operating at another level. The manager or director of this "play" of life has the job of coordinating and balancing the various roles---which takes skill, because some of the roles conflict with other roles some times.

My approach in psychological literacy is to use the unit of "role"---which is related to the dramaturgical metaphor---but it's also a handy, familiar, "user-friendly" way to approach the complexities of practical psychology that transcends any particular school of thought and can be understood by ordinary people. Just look at social and psychological situations in terms of the roles being played, not just between people or groups, but also within the individual personality there can be component roles in conflict or supporting each other.

This is setting the stage for developing the role of the inner manager---no, let's promote her to Chief Executive Officer, CEO, and paying her a virtual salary of millions of dollars. The image here is that such a CEO needs to get lots of management training, needs to develop a wide range of skills to a high degree, in order to be worth the big bucks she's earning. Another way to say this is that most ordinary people who are not artists of their lives get by on fairly mediocre or marginal self-management skills, and what psychological literacy is about is developing especially the capabilitis of that CEO role, that part of you that can become more self-aware, take charge, and manage with greater consciousness!

Becoming Self-Aware of the Self as a Potential Center for Awareness

Most people are normally aware enough to get through most life tasks without too much trouble. In part, in stable socieities, they have fallen into patterns in which the whole culture serves to define the general set of attitudes, competencies, and the like so that mere conformity is adaptive. In changing cultures, though---such as our own, in which the rate of change is accelerating---whatever the culture has evolved tends to become obsolete more often than helpful. A major shift in consciousness is needed, from reliance on what "they" think to thinking for oneself. (The skills of critical thinking will be addressed in a later series.). People need to take more responsibility for themselves as the culture has to deal with new technologies, a much greater number of people from different backgrounds (rather than, in the stable societies of centuries past, having most of your neighbors share the same cultural background), and various other changes.

So the first step is to consciously, explicitly, intentionally take on the role of CEO or governor or whatever you might want to call this role. Your main jobs include (1) knowing what's going on with as many roles you are playing as possible---the self-awareness part---; (2) learning skills of thinking clearly about what you've learned---no easy task---, which as I said will be addressed from various viewpoints in future lectures and other papers on this website; (3) exercising skills to manage, balance, coordinate, modify, refine, and in other ways deal with this welter of roles that you play. This includes communicating more effectively and addressing and solving problems as they arise. A fourth skill adds to this: Consider that you need to continue to improve your skills in all your duties  in the same way as  computer owners need to upgrade their hardware and operating systems every several years.  But  this means merely that you are  not just a person who lives your life, the victim of social pressures and historical forces, but rather that you become an artist. True, you can't be completely "in control"---but you can exercise more responsibility in those domains where you do have some control. (And part of self-awareness does deal with asking what you can and cannot control and to what degree. Sometimes you can only influence, sometimes only a little bit, but more than nothing.)

An interesting thing about this meta-role (meta being the ancient Greek word root for "beyond"), this self-managing executive, is that it is theoretically pure. Its only job is that of management. Getting rich, having lots of sexual adventures or fancy cars or many houses---these are all sub-roles. The meta-role ideally doesn't get caught up in the roles she's supposed to manage. This then leads to the next skill:


The mind is a complex complex and states of attention and attachment shift around. Identification is the name of the subtle mental activity  of thinking or deciding that "you" are this or that role or quality. Now the funny thing is that this is an act---it is also possible that "you" can dis-attach from that object. Now you are more fully involved with being your gender---Me Tarzan, You Jane. Male-female stereotypes heightened. For some roles, such as for explicit sexual enjoyment, that gradient can be appropriate. For some roles, though, it absolutely does not matter which gender the person is, only the role. (I read where they made a woman the top drill sergeant in the military, and she said, "Basically, I'm a soldier.") This has been a major shift in the last century, because even when we were growing up, there was a much broader list of things that men did that women did not and vice versa. Almost all of these have been challenged.

The point I'm making, though, is sort-of Buddhist: You can withdraw your identification from any role you play---and to be an artist, you need to do this some times!

... more to come.

I welcome ideas for revision...