“Finally, I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself, unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already surpass myself”. Thomas Merton.
This is one of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes. It captures both the complexity and simplicity in accepting oneself. Speaking specifically to the genuine necessity in knowing your own truth, purpose, or true self.
As a clinician finding this true self is what, I believe, the work of therapy (if not life in general) is about.
At the core of us, all of us, lays our beginning self. The self we were born to the world with. The essence that was there before the world conditioned it, to wait beneath the layers, for our return.
In brief description, utilizing a psychological framework, the concept of true self was developed by psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott (1896-1971). Winnicott, an original contributor to psychoanalysis and human development described the true self as “the sense of self based on authentic experience. A sense of feeling alive or all-out personal aliveness”.
It is a longing for return to this aliveness, this freedom, and almost innocent wonder that we most seem to want. This longing can show up for us as a sense of emptiness, disconnect, or longing. It can show up as an internal voice, that seems to say, I don’t know what I want, I don’t know who I am, or something is wrong with me. It is this sense of longing (for finding or returning) that facilitates searching for who we are.
It is likely that we can all relate to this concept. It is additionally unlikely (because we are human) that we have escaped the conditioning of our society. This conditioning, from the very beginning of our birth, takes shape in our earliest interactions with our parents who received their own conditioning and disconnect from self. It then molds and shapes us through life in the form of family, educators, friendships, media, literature, and so on. It is this conditioning that is at the heart of our human and societal experience. We must learn the dance of our family and society (early in life) to navigate its many expectations. We can become quiet successful (by life’s material standards) in learning our dance well. It is, in truth, how we survive our childhoods but also what takes us from our true essence.
Our survival comes through the development of, what Winnicott termed, our false self. The self we show the world. The self that greets us in the mirror each morning and begins anew each day in its work of keeping us disconnected. Winnicott saw the development of the false self as a psychological defense or defenses designed to “protect the true self by hiding it”. Finding this self (the true hidden and awaiting self) takes many forms (both internal and external) and is (in my learning) at the heart of human unhappiness or the human search for happiness.
Winnicott saw the false self as protector, the “polite and mannered” social self. Of course, it is not always polite and mannered. At times, it is angry and unruly. It shows up in many ways to protect its more vulnerable internal self. It is our defense (or set of defenses) and, it is as genuinely individual as we are. It is, in essence, the mask we show the world and, again ourselves, as we begin and end each day.
The false self leads us to believe that we can find our happiness through external pursuits. While the true self is communicating the need (from deep within) that we need to return to us. It is in this return that we find freedom, acceptance, and even joy. That innocent wondering and curiosity we were born with.
Psychological defense, as discussed often on this blog, takes many forms. It can show up as distancing and withdrawal, attempts to please or perfection, anger, defiance, and /or aggression. It runs along a continuum of compliance to defiance and has many faces. At its core, as Winnicott so eloquently describes, it is there to protect the self that was conditioned to hide.
The true self (sends its messages through feelings that something isn’t right) is really just saying return. It is the false self (the holder of our defense) that engages in external (and ideally eventual internal) pursuits in its search. It is responsible for many things (again along a continuum) such as withdrawal from life and relationship, beginning relationships, to thrill seeking, drug and/or alcohol use, spiritual seeking, and much more.
In terms of offering further understanding, it is important to consider the work of Carl Jung (1902 -1987). Jung expanded Winnicott’s work and further developed the ideology around the internal self. He specifically created the modality known as client focused treatment (at the heart of internal work) and concepts such as conditional positive regard, shadow self, and collective unconscious. Jung believed that we, through our social learning, adopt conditions placed on our ideas of love and belonging. It is these ideas that both Jung and Winicott (among other notable clinicians and researchers) believed needed exploration (unlayering) in the quest for the true self. In essence, the eventual unearthing of that which has bound us.
As we begin the second month of our new year (the year 2021) I am thinking about the true self, false self, and shadow self. Revisiting the vast body of work and deeper understanding left to humanity by Donald Winnicott and Carl Jung. In truth, if we are to change the many unearthed realities revealed to us in 2020 it will take much self and societal learning. In my learning, facilitating true change, will only come through reflection and introspection. I don’t foresee a whole world , or even our own immediate society, owning this philosophy or difficult work.
This unlayering requires a deep look at our learning. It requires us to look at the parts we both see and those hidden within our shadow self and false self. Per Jung’s work, it includes those ideologies that are universal (both positive and negative) and those that are simply human conditions. Those that live within what Jung described as our collective unconscious. Note, if this article interest you, the following articles which explore this ideology, may be of interest. Shadow’s Voice: Red Man Blue Man and /or Ho ‘Oponopono: Ancient Wisdom for 2021.
What I know, for certain, is if we do this work individually (whether in a clinician’s office or through other introspective activities) we can get closer to something that resembles self-acceptance. It is this acceptance of self (wrapped in the cloak of self-understanding (with compassion and not judgement) as Thomas Merton suggest) that allows the freedom of self. And, it is in this acceptance of self ( a true understanding of self) that acceptance of other comes.
As always, it is my hope that something written here will resonate with you. I am always curious about your thoughts and welcome your impressions and insights.
With deepest respect,
Copyright Protected Material: © 2014 ~ 2021 LaDonna Remy MSW, LICSW. All rights reserved. Written content on this blog (Perspective on Trauma) is the property of the author LaDonna Remy, MSW, LICSW. Any unauthorized use or duplication without written permission of the author/ owner of this web log is prohibited. Excerpts or quotes may be shared in the event the author is fully cited with reference and direction to this blog.
Professional Disclaimer: It is important to recognize that all information contained in the Perspective on Trauma Blog is informational. It is not intended to provide advice, assessment, treatment, or diagnosis. Content is not intended as a substitute for clinical care. It is not possible to provide informed care through web content, or to engage in an informed treatment relationship within this format. If you or a loved one need support; it is important that you access this care from your own (specifically assigned) health care provider.
Agreement of Use: In consideration for your use of and access to the Perspective on Trauma Blog, you agree that LaDonna Remy MSW, LICSW is not liable to you for any action or non-action you may take in reliance upon information from the Perspective on Trauma blog. As noted; it is not possible to provide informed (personalized care) through blog content. In the event; support is needed it is your responsibility to seek care from your own health-care provider.
National Hotlines: Treatment Referral Helpline: (1-877-726-4727)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-825
Accessing the Clinical Genuis of Winicott. Quatman Teri
Collected Worls of C.G. Jung. Jung, C.G.
Playing and Reality (Routedge Classics). Winicott, D.W.
The Essential Jung. Storr,Anthony.
The Work and Play of Winnicott. Groninick, Simon A.