Demystifying the Self

photo_26686_20130806 Many clients walk into therapy with the idea that who they are is some sort of mystery in need of discovery; that their depression or anxiety is connected to some difficult to attain truth.  They confuse their symptoms or the events they experienced with their identity. They confuse how they feel or what was perpetrated upon them with the fabric of who they are and until they unlock some secret they will never achieve happiness.

Much of this thinking comes from the influence psychoanalytic theory (early and modern) had and still has in understanding mental health issues, a theory born out of methods that most would find laughable today.  It’s prominence was largely the result of its’ novelty and an illusion of science.  Much of what it claims drives human behavior is not observable and its theories surrounding human behavior can appear fantastic, confusing and downright weird.

So what does that have to do with anything?

The introduction of psychoanalytic theory into the larger culture pushed us from looking to what people did as evidence of who they are to relying on things we couldn’t see, fully understand and couldn’t prove in trying to explain their nature.

There were earlier concepts of the self that later models of treatment pulled from. Definitions that paid less attention to unprovable factors that drove people to act and emphasized how people ought to act. These concepts were based on patterns of observable human behavior, a common understanding of happiness and the idea that suffering was not necessarily pathological but always an opportunity to behave nobly, draw purpose and become better.

So when you struggle with the question of who you are, consider focusing less on what you can’t see and will probably never understand.  Try to focus more on what you do, the kind of parent, friend, spouse, boss or co-worker you come across as and the regard that those you care about hold you in. Consider looking at the difficult and painful experiences in your life as evidence of your ability to survive, your resilience. That despite these obstacles you are, or can become better than where you came from, what you went through or what you were born with.

That’s your “self “and it’s going to change. Who you are in your 20’s will be different than who you are in your 50’s. Your life was not programmed into you by the time you were 5.  Your “self” will be the product of how consistent your actions are with your virtues. Abuse, trauma, depression are factors that influence your life but your survival and how you run your life is what defines your identity.

If you don’t like what you see or how you are defining yourself, then change it. Reconnect with your virtues, standards and expectations. Make sure they’re reasonable and do your best to stick to them. When you or others fail to live up to these, understand that authentic effort is what counts; stumbling here and there is worked into the equation. Don’t be afraid to get a little guidance from Aristotle, Jesus, Buddha, Vishnu, Moses or whoever else you consider to be good and wise.

When you’re dead, folks aren’t going to dive into the mysteries of your unconscious or subconscious in trying to figure out who you are; they will look to your actions.

Giving props to Aristotle

Props as in respect, not the thing used by actors-Aristotle didn’t need those kinds of props. He was the Chuck Norris of philosophy.   I’m thinking that was probably an unsafe thing to say.  Who cares? I feel like taking some risks today and my other desire (selling my house and moving to Alaska) would probably mean financial ruin.

Being the product of a Catholic education, I know my Aristotle. His writings are what got me interested in psychotherapy as a career.  Think about it. This is the guy who defined (or at least tried to define) what it meant to live a happy life.  He believed that happiness is the product of a person’s actions and habits.  He addressed the extremes people could experience in the face of distressing events.  He created a middle ground that honored the desire the emotions behind the extremes pushed us to meet while providing us with the greatest opportunity for self-respect and right action.  My psychoanalytically minded friends would tell you that he was talking about Freudian concepts before Freud was even a thought in his mommy’s mind.  Which makes sense since Freud’s mother was born well after Aristotle died.   The CBT and Positive Psychology folks will tell you he laid most of the groundwork for what they do.  The DBT therapists might look at you like you’ve just crossed some major boundary and have no business being in the same room with them.  That’s okay; I think they do that to everyone.

I’m just kidding guys….we should all be able to laugh at ourselves, right?


Nicomachean ethics was probably the world’s first self-help series.  Well, I don’t really know if it was actually the first one, but that would be cool if it were true.  As I’m writing this others come to mind, but whatever-I’ll save the post on T.S. Eliot for another time.  I can say that his work was the most coherent precursor to many of the modalities therapists work from today and probably the most influential in the development of Western Civilization.

So what if his work wasn’t scientific? Neither was Freud’s .  No it really, really wasn’t…..really.   Aristotle certainly had a greater influence than Freud did on the field of psychology and life in general.  I’m thankful for that because Freud freaks me out.

So, if some guy wearing a multi-layered robe and sandals opens up shop as a therapist, you may want to consider giving him a shot.  Just be sure he’s licensed.