Psychology of The Real Self Research Paper

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Theories of the self have led to more confusion than understanding in the development of psychoanalytic thinking. Freud’s ambiguous use of the term Ich, referring to the self both as a whole person—subjective experiential—and to the ego (Strachey 1966) theoretical, more objective and mechanical—led to considerable confusion about the relationship between the self and the ego which persists to the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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The matter was further confused (Bettelheim 1982) by the abstract mistranslations of Freud’s use of the word soul. An additional factor contributing to the confusion was that Freud and the pioneer analysts mostly worked with neurosis and, therefore, with oedipal levels of conflict. This is a developmental level at which the self had already become autonomous and assumed its functions and capacities. As a result, it did not cause enough of the kind of clinical problems that might have drawn attention.

However, when analysts turned their attention to patients with psychoses and character disorders, they were confronted with disorders of the self. These patients, development was arrested not at the oedipal but at the preoedipal level and, therefore, their deep difficulties were predominantly with the functioning of the self. The lack of a fully developed concept of the self, which had not previously been an obstacle, now became one.

From this basic conflict there emerged two mainstreams of thought with regard to the concept of the self, each of which emphasized one of the two senses in which Freud used the term—either the whole person or as a special part of the mind with its own unique capacities and functions. Those who emphasized Ich as ego tended to be working mostly with neurotics and oedipal conflicts and placed heavy emphasis on the structural theory (ego, id, superego).

Those who emphasized the other meaning of the term Ich—the self as the whole person—tended to be working with psychoses and character disorders, and preoedipal levels of conflict and difficulties with the self.

This latter group, who emphasized the self as a whole person, further fractionated into a number of subgroups based on varying definitions of the self, its nature, and its functions as follows:

(a) Jung (1953) saw the self as a primordial image or archetype expressing the individual’s need for unity, wholeness, and its highest aspirations.

(b) Rank (1929) focused on the psychological aspects of the emergence of the physical self at birth and emphasized separation anxiety as springing from birth trauma.

(c) Adler (1940) saw the life-style (repetitive patterns derived from early childhood) as a defensive overcompensation for inferiority feelings about the self, therefore blocking the emergence of the real, creative self.

(d) Horney (1950) postulated an idealized self which produced a pseudo unity or wholeness that blocked the emergence of what she called the real self.

(e) Sullivan (Mullahy 1970) felt that the essence of the self was determined by its functions: (i) the fulfillment of needs; (ii) the maintenance of security.

A reconciliation of both senses of the use of the word Ich or self—whole person and ego—has more recently been undertaken by theoreticians in ego psychology and object relations theory. Hartmann (1958) distinguished between the self as a whole person, the ego as a system (part of the tripartite structure of id, ego, superego), and the self representation as the intrapsychic representation of the self. He also defined narcissism as the libidinal investment of the self representation. Then Jacobson (1964), in order to work with psychotics, carried the concept further by defining the self representation as the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious intrapsychic representations of the bodily and mental self in the system ego. Kernberg (1982) used the term character to refer to the self as a whole person and preferred to use the term self to refer to the sum total of intrapsychic self representations in intimate contact with the sum total of object representations in the ego. In contrast to Hartmann, he felt that the self and object representations are both libidinally and aggressively invested.

Kohut (1971), from his work with narcissistic personality disorders, viewed the self as consisting of fused self objects which were invested with narcissistic libido that had its own line of development separate from the development of object representations and object libido. In other words, there was no separation of self and object, but rather maturation of self objects from primitive to mature forms.

This focus on the self as an intrapsychic entity, when kept in concert with the other perspectives of developmental object relations theory, can lead to a broader, more inclusive and comprehensive concept of the real self and its disorders. This view reconciles both definitions of Ich—the self and the ego—bringing together the personal, subjective experiential with the objective, mechanistic theoretical.

1. The Real Self: Structure, Development, And Function

1.1 Clinical

A few definitions will facilitate discussion of the structure of the real self.

1.1.1 Self-Image. The image an individual has of himself at a particular time and in a specific situation. It consists of his body image and the mental representation of his state at the time. This image may be conscious or unconscious, realistic or distorted (Moore and Fine 1968).

1.1.2 Self-Representation. A more enduring schema than self-image, constructed by the ego out of the multitude of realistic and distorted self images which an individual has had at different times. It represents the person as he consciously and unconsciously perceives himself and may be dormant or active (Moore and Fine 1968).

1.1.3 Supraordinate self-organizations. Because subjective experiences may be organized by multiple self representations, the ‘I’ of one state of mind may not necessarily be the same as the ‘I’ of another state of mind. This term is used for the organization and patterning of the various subordinate self-images and representations (Horowitz and Zilben 1983). It connects them and provides a continuity between them and a sense of unity and wholeness.

2. The Real Self

In keeping with ego psychology and object relations theory, the term ‘real self’ is used in the intrapsychic sense of the sum of self and object representations with their related affects.

The term ‘real’ is synonymous with healthy or normal. It is used to emphasize that the representations of the real self have an important conscious reality component even though unconscious and fantasy elements occur. It also indicates that the real self has an important reality function: to provide a vehicle for self-activation and the maintenance of self-esteem through the mastery of reality.

The term real self also helps to differentiate it from the false selves of the borderline and narcissistic patients that are based primarily on defensive fantasy, not on reality, and are directed toward defense, not toward self-expression in reality. When using the term real self, both the collective subordinate self-representations and their supraordinate organization are referred to.

The real self exists as a parallel partner of the ego and has its own development, its own capacities, and its own psychopathology. The self and the ego develop and function together in tandem, like two horses in the same harness. If the ego is arrested in development, so is the self. One aspect of the self could be viewed as the representational arm of the ego, although it is obviously more than that. Similarly, one aspect of the ego, since it deals with volition and will and with the activation and gratification of individuative wishes, could be viewed as the executive arm of the self. However, it is also obviously more than that as its primary function is maintaining intrapsychic equilibrium.

Erickson (1968) referred to the dual and inseparable nature of the self-ego as follows: Identity formation can be said to have a self aspect and an ego aspect. What could be called the self identity emerges from experiences from which temporarily confused (subordinate) selves are successfully reintegrated in an ensemble of roles which also secure social recognition. One can speak of ego identity when one discusses the ego’s synthesizing power in the light of its central psychosocial function and a self identity when the integration of the individual’s self role images are under discussion.

To differentiate between personal identity [or in my terms the real self—JFM] and ego identity: personal entity is a conscious feeling based on two simultaneous observations: the perception of the self sameness and continuity of one’s existence in time and space, and the perception of the fact that others recognize one’s sameness and continuity. Ego identity, however, is the quality of that existence in its subjective aspect; it is the awareness of the fact there is a self sameness and continuity to the ego synthesizing methods.

The real self, then, provides an internal repertoire that, although finite and fixed, is varied and flexible enough to blend the need for real self-expression with the external roles required by adaptation.

3. Development Of The Real Self

The ingredients or building blocks of the real self consist of the biologic and genetic endowment, the child’s experience of proprioceptive and sensory sensations from his or her own body, as well as pleasure in increasing mastery in coping with the environment plus the interactions with a caring object as described by Mahler and McDevitt (1982).

I will assume the infant has two basic points of reference from which he builds up his self schema: one, his own inner feelings or states forming the primitive core of the self on the one hand and, two, his sense of the care given by the libidinal object on the other hand. Insofar as the infant’s development of the sense of self takes place in the context of the dependency on the mother, the sense of self that results will bear the imprint of her caregiving.

Psychoanalytic child observation researchers have traced the emergence of the self in normal children in the first three years of life. The issues of this child observation research are quite complex and beyond the scope of this paper. The contributions of four researchers: Mahler (1975), Stern (1985), Bowlby (1969), and Schore (1994) are briefly summarized.

Mahler (1975) derived intrapsychic hypotheses from observations of the child’s behavior. Her work with child psychotics led her to theorize that the child’s self emerges from a symbiotic relationship with the mother. She’s described this occurring in four stages: autistic, symbiotic, separation–individuation and on the way to object constancy. Each stage brought further separation of the self from the maternal object representation. She emphasized the vital importance of the mother’s support for the child’s emerging self.

Stern (1985) similarly based his theories of intrapsychic development from observations of the children’s behavior. He found that there was no symbiotic stage that the child was prewired to see the mother perceptually as separate from birth and that the child was an active co-creator of its own development in relationship with the primary caretaker. He also described four stages: emerging self, core self, inter- subjective self, and verbal self.

Bowlby (1969), unlike Mahler and Stern, made no intrapsychic hypotheses but limited his findings to what can be observed from the child’s behavior, thus providing a firmer scientific base that could be replicated. He theorized that at birth the child had no attachment to the mother, and that the primary task was for the child to find a secure attachment. He divided that attachment into two types—the secure and the insecure. This insecure was then subdivided into avoidant, resistant, disorganized, and disoriented.

Schore (1994), based on neurobiological rather than psychoanalytic research, reported that the development of the brain is experience-dependent on the interaction with the primary caretaker or the mother. The genes are responsible for the physical neurons but it is the interaction with the mother during the crucial early stages of development between 10 to 12 months and 14 to 16 months that is responsible for the wiring of those neurons. It is the wiring that occurs during these crucial stages that helps the self to emerge and to take on its functions in the regulation of affect and socio-emotional relationships. Thus, the mother is found to be as important neurologically as psychologically.

Although the self becomes autonomous and able to perform its function at three years, further increments are added during the phallic–oedipal phase, latency, and adolescence. As the child passes through each later psychosocial stage, the resolution of it provides certain capacities for the self such as industry, initiative, and generativity as described by Erickson (1968). The whole process of development of the self culminates in the normal identity crisis of adolescence, where the adolescent must test, select, and integrate the self images derived from the crises of childhood in the light of the climate of youth and sexual maturity.

3.1 Capacities Of The Self

Simultaneously and in parallel with the maturation of ego functions, and with self and object representations becoming whole, the now whole, separate, real self becomes autonomous and takes on its capacities. These capacities were clinically identified mostly by their impairment and repair in borderline and narcissistic patients. This list is probably far from complete but forms an adequate clinical working scheme:

(a) Spontaneity and aliveness of affect. The capacity to experience affect deeply with liveliness, joy, vigor, excitement, and spontaneity.

(b) Self-entitlement. From early experiences of mastery coupled with parental acknowledgment and support of the emerging self, the sense builds up that the self is entitled to appropriate experiences of mastery and pleasure, as well as to the environmental input necessary to achieve these objectives. This sense, of course, is sorely deficient in the borderline disorder, and pathologically inflated in the narcissistic disorder.

(c) Self-activation, assertion and support. The capacity to identify one’s unique individuative wishes and to use autonomous initiative and assertion to express them in reality and to support and defend them when under attack.

(d) Acknowledgment of self-activation and maintenance of self-esteem. To identify and acknowledge to oneself that one’s self (in both senses of the term) has coped with an affective state and/or an environmental issue or interaction in a positive, adaptive manner. This acknowledgment is the vehicle for autonomously fueling adequate self-esteem.

(e) Soothing of painful affects. The capacity to autonomously devise means to limit, minimize, and sooth painful affects.

(f) Continuity of self. The recognition and acknowledgment through an effective supraordinate organization that the ‘I’ of one experience is continuous over time and related to the ‘I’ of another experience.

(g) Commitment. To commit the self to an objective or a relationship and to persevere, despite obstacles, to attain the goal.

(h) Creativity. To use the self to change old, familiar patterns into new, unique, and different patterns.

(i) Intimacy. The capacity to express the self fully in a close relationship with minimal anxiety about abandonment or engulfment.

(j) Autonomy. The capacity to autonomously regulate self-esteem and socio-emotional relationships.

4. The Healthy And Impaired Real Self

For a clinical example of the operation of the real self, consider a young psychologist who submits his first version of his PhD thesis to his advisory committee and is told that in some areas it lacks information and in others the writing is poor.

Since the cornerstone of his real self is his sense of self-entitlement, he feels entitled to mastery and whatever input that this requires, plus his capacities for self-activation, assertion, and commitment. He realizes at the outset that the purpose of submitting his thesis at that time was to learn its deficiencies so that he could correct them. He then applies his creativity, commitment, and self-assertion to find ways to learn the necessary knowledge and improve his writing. By mastering his reality problem, he has provided an autonomous feedback to support his self-esteem or self-image, a support which is also soundly based on reality.

To extend the metaphor of the psychology student to contrast the operation of the borderline, false defensive self with the real self: Because of his difficulty with self-activation, assertion and commitment, and creativity, the student might procrastinate and delay submitting his thesis way beyond the deadline. The critical comments would be felt as a reinforcement or proof of his inadequate self and would precipitate an abandonment depression to which he would respond by helpless clinging to a teacher or other authority, or by avoiding the project altogether. This, of course, would further reinforce his sense of an inadequate self.


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