Painting by Francis Bacon
By Dave Hood
What is “self?” For most people, self means personal identity. Self answers the question: Who am I?
Self is also part of the psyche or mind. It is a collection of experiences and memories, thoughts and emotions, self identities, sensory perceptions, and one’s ego. Self often refers to “self concept.” If you study psychology, you learn about self. It is a human construct. It is immaterial, having no matter, and so you cannot see it.
When we are asked “What is self?” we come up with a variety of answers. We think of self-concept, existential self, self-awareness, self-identity, self- image.
Self-concept and self-identity and self-image are synonyms. Each refers to how a person views himself or herself. One person might say, “I am a writer.” Another person might say, “I am a mother, caregiver, wife.”
Existential self is the most basic part of the self-scheme or self-concept; the sense of being separate and distinct from others and the awareness of the constancy of the self” (Bee, 1992).It begins at a young age, perhaps in infancy, when the baby realizes that he or she exists as a separate entity from others and the outer world. For instance, the infant smiles, and the mother smiles back.
Self-awareness is conscious knowledge of one’s own thoughts, feelings, motives, desires, personality, likes and dislikes, memories, perceptions of the external world. The person is able to think, recall, perceive, judge, be aware of “self-talk,” as well as “self-image”, experience sensory awareness, such as sights, sounds, smells. Self-awareness allows a person to become aware of “ego” and “soul.” Self-awareness also enables a person to construct a self-image.
In part, self-image is constructed from our personality traits, our life experiences, what others tell us about ourselves, what we say to ourselves (self-talk) , our successes and failures, achievements and misfortunes.
Self is also constructed from the various roles we play in society. Most people have jobs, so they play the role of employee. They get married, so they play the role of husband or wife. They have and raise children, so they play the role of parent. If the person performs well in a particular role, their self-worth becomes elevated in that particular role.
One’s sense of self contributes to self-esteem. A person’s level of self-esteem depends on whether the person has a weak or strong sense of self-worth, which answers the questions: Do I like myself? Do I value myself? Am I a person worthy of respect, dignity, and love of another human being?
The sense of self evolves as we pass through life— from infancy, to childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, into old age, and finally death. You are not who you were 10 years ago, and you will not be who you are now the day you pass into oblivion.
To become aware of “self”, we must have a functioning brain, which enables consciousness. It enables to think, to remember, to introspect, to ponder the question: Who am I? The philosopher Descartes said, ” I think, therefore I am.”
Self can be compromised by disease, such as dementia, mental illness, brain cancer, ALS. And it can be torn apart by mental disorders, such as Bipolar psychosis, drug abuse, alcoholism, brain cancer.
As we journey through life, self is forever changing, evolving, transforming like the four seasons. There is the spring of self in which we bloom; the summer of self in which we further develop our identity, experience joy and pleasure, challenges and achievements. There is the autumn of self, in which we reflect and use wisdom and life experience to answer questions about life, such as “Does self exist after death?” By the time we are in the autumn of self, self identity is well- defined. Often, the mind begins to decline from the effects of aging, and so the sense of self erodes. Finally, in the winter of self, there is the death of self. The moment we take our last breathe, the “self” is obliterated, annihilated.
Self is different from soul, which is our essence. Soul is the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being. Christians believe in the immortality of the soul. Once you die, your soul lives on for eternity.
Soul has different meanings, such as spirit, or life force, or ineffable energy. Soul is like the burning flame of a candle. When the wind of death blows out the flame, there is darkness.
Some religions refuse to accept the concept of “self.” The Buddhist faith/philosophy argues that there is no self. Self is just a delusion of the mind. It is a human construct. Instead, we are conscious beings in which thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, hopes, and dreams are forever flowing through the mind like a raging river.
I have learned from meditation the truth about self. If you meditate on a regular basis for 10 or more minutes each day, you gradually realize that your “essence” is not “self” and that self is just something you have constructed in the mind from your ego, your desire to be right, to be respected, to be liked, to be loved. Your essence is a peaceful state of bliss. And so, I would agree with Buddhist thinking that “self” is a delusion. There is no self.
From a sociological perspective, our self-concept evolves through a process of socialization. It is our interactions with the social environment that create our self concept, much like an artist sculptures a work of art. We are the product of our interactions with people and institutions, including family, education, work, friendships, love, faith, trauma, hardship, mental illness, the stages of human development
In exploring self concept from a psychology perspective, we must consider personality. It’s a collection of personality traits. These personality traits, which we inherit, also shape our “self concept.” Personality is a blend of characteristics that make each of us unique. For instance, some people are extroverts, while others are introverts. Some people are naturally confident and explorers, while others worry and are nervous. Some people are naturally open-minded and desire new experiences, while others are closed off from others and the world.
There have been many theories of personality defined by Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, and other psychologists. Carl Jung has constructed one of the best theories of “personality.” He suggests that personality consists of three elements: ego or conscious self, unconscious self, and collective unconsciousness, which is inherited and part of human evolution.
Jung’s theory divides the psyche into three parts. The first is the ego, which Jung identifies with the conscious mind. It answers the question: who am I?
The second aspect of personality is personal unconscious, such as dreams and memories, which are forgotten or repressed.
The third element of Jung’s theory of personality is the collective unconscious. It is “psychic inheritance” or “DNA of Personality.” It is part of the psyche that is not part of conscious personal experience. The collective unconsciousness consists of what Jung called archetypes, which are inherited through human evolution, part of the collective DNA of humanity. These are Archetypes include self (who am I), shadow or dark side (alter ego),persona (the various masks we wear on the stage of daily life), and anima/animus (the mirror image of our biological sex, that is, the unconscious feminine side in males and the masculine tendencies in women.)
We can never introspect and become aware of our collective unconsciousness. It is manifested in myth, religion, film, art, writing, music, fairy tales, the mystical. literature.
And so, I believe that collective unconsciousness assists in defining “ self.”
Carl Jung’s theory of personality also focuses on four basic psychological functions:
-Extraversion vs. Introversion
-Sensation vs. Intuition
-Thinking vs. Feeling
-Judging vs. Perceiving
Therefore, we can also define “self” in terms of these psychological functions. Some people are thinkers, while others feel. Some people are judging, while others perceive….
From a psychological perspective, we must also explore intelligence and how it molds our “self concept” or “self identity,” as well as self-esteem. In 1983, Howard Gardner proposed the multiple Intelligence model of IQ. Gardner chose eight abilities musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal (emotional intelligence), intrapersonal (ability for introspection). Each individual possesses a unique blend of all the intelligences, and they shape self concept. But the person must discover and develop these inherent intelligences.
Achievements and failures also define self-concept and self-esteem. Self esteem answers the question: What do I like about myself? Some people loathe themselves, while others are like narcissus, the Greek God, who looked in the mirror and fell in love with himself. When we achieve or accomplish our goals, we enhance our self-esteem. When we fail to succeed or accomplish a goal, our self-esteem deflates like a flat tire.
Mental illness also plays a role in self concept. The person who suffers from depression or anxiety must constantly deal with “negative self talk,” which erodes a positive sense of self. Negative self talk creates cognitive distortions or irrational thinking, such as catastrophic thinking, believing the worst possibility will become a reality; or mind reading, believing you know what another person is thinking; or fortune telling, which means that you can predict the future; or emotional reasoning, feeling pessimistic about life and disliking one’s means that it must be true. The mentally ill must struggle to like themselves, often by seeking therapy and taking medication and implementing techniques of self-love.
Countless artists have also explore “the self” in their art work, These creative thinkers, share their personal view of self in their writing, such as memoirs and poetry, in their paintings and photography, through their lyrics and musical sounds…I think of the paintings by Francis Bacon, who depicted a tormented psyche rooted in his existential view of life. I refer also to the melancholy poetry of Sylvia Plath. She writes: “I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.”I recall the lyrics Freddie Mercury and the melancholy sounds of music by Philip Glass. I point to the various personas or masks in self-portrait photographs by Cindy Sherman.
The sense of “self” requires a functioning brain. Once we die, the brain, which requires oxygen to survive, stops functioning, and consciousness ceases. It would seem that our memories, dreams, awareness, ego, thinking, perceiving, and self identity are obliterated the moment we take that last breathe.
Based on logical thinking—using both deductive reasoning (to prove) and inductive reasoning (to show probability), I believe that the”self” is annihilated by death.
And so, I wonder what eternal life or rebirth really means, perhaps just wishful thinking. Nobody has returned from beyond the grave to share their experiences from “the other side.”