The Notion of “The True Self” in Psychoanalytic Therapy

What is Psychoanalytic Therapy? – A Personal View, Part 7

Apart from displacement, among the other important themes that Nietzsche introduces into modern thought that have become indispensable to psychotherapy is the emphasis on the need to give shape to one’s own life, rather than relying on values inherited from religion and traditional morality to give this to us.

This ethical ideal of self-formation is the counterpart to the ending of the traditional moral opposition between self-interest and altruism implied by the discovery of psychological displacement. If goodness in a human being can no longer be defined simply as altruism and self-sacrifice then it has to be considered in a new way. It would be false to say that at the moment we do have an alternative notion of goodness that enjoys broad consensus. The awareness of this absence is in many ways what defines modernity. Nevertheless, the idea of goodness in a human being is now difficult to sustain if it does not include an honesty with oneself about one’s own motives, and some capacity to learn, develop and reshape one’s aims in life.

This imperative of discovering and re-discovering what are the priorities unique to one’s life, and seeing this as the answer to the suffering of life, is implicit in Freud’s work, and also in his own life, which was distinguished by personal courage, creativity, and re-invention of the self in the face of crisis. But it does not receive formal stress in his theoretical writing.

It has however come to be an indispensable one for psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic therapists since Freud.

For instance, in the 1960s the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) spoke of a distinction between what he called the “false self” and the “true self”, terms that are not to be found in the writings of Freud. (Cf. “The Concept of the False Self”, 1964, reprinted in Home Is Where We Start From, Penguin, 1986, pp. 65-70)

As Winnicott acknowledged, such a distinction is anything but new. The general idea is also not hard to identify in many of Winnicott’s predecessors and contemporaries in psychotherapy, including Otto Rank, Carl Rogers, who spoke of the “real self”, and Karen Horney.

In fact the idea can be traced back through the centuries in the works of countless philosophers, seers and moral teachers. “What does it profit a man if he gain the world and lose his own soul?” asks Jesus (Mark 8:36), rhetorically indicating the perennial problem that what our true self really needs is not necessarily what the rest of the world thinks it needs. “I am who I am,” says the Lord of The Old Testament (Exodus 3:14) when Moses asks who is commanding him to lead his people in a dangerous revolt against the power of the Egyptian state. This emphasis on the unprecedented, that is to say, unnameable, nature of any act that proceeds from the true self is echoed by Shakespeare when he has Romeo reply to Juliet’s question who he is, “By name I know not how to tell thee who I am.” (Romeo & Juliet, II.2.54-5) In Greek thought, Plato’s theory of Forms assumes the truth of what we are is something that has to be discovered behind the surface of appearances. The assumption that what is true about us and what is apparent about us are two different things is possibly the oldest assumption of Western culture, and perhaps of all culture.

In his discussion of “the true self” Winnicott refers to the famous remark of Shakespeare’s Polonius in Hamlet, dating from 1600, “To thine own self be true,” and suggests that Shakespeare gives these lines to what he calls “a crashing bore”, in order “perhaps to avoid being smug”. (ibid.)

But Shakespeare’s aim here is deeper than this. In giving the expression to a character who so signally lacks self-awareness and a knowledge of what his true self is, a “foolish prating knave”, as Hamlet calls him (III, 4), Shakespeare draws our attention to how easily the idea of the “true self” can be emptied of meaning. The point is that Polonius has never doubted that he knows what his “true self” is. The result is that, coming from such a man, because there is no genuine thought behind them, the words “to thine own self be true” become an instant cliché.

And in a culture such as ours, even more than in 1600, where “being true to oneself” is endlessly repeated as if it were the easiest thing in the world, the danger is that it simply degenerates into another advertising slogan. This is highlighted with comical irony in the film Clueless. Here, Cher, the kind-hearted teenager who is also almost entirely a victim of fashion, is nevertheless the only one among her friends to remember that the phrase “to thine own self be true” is not actually uttered by Hamlet himself, the character in literature who epitomises, if any does, the search for the reality of man underneath the ephemeral surface, but on the contrary, as she points out, by “that Polonius guy”.

In giving the phrase to the superficial courtier Polonius, and not to the tormented philosopher Hamlet, Shakespeare is, as ever, underlining how deceptive language can be and therefore how vital it is to observe what a man is doing and not to get distracted by what he says he is doing. We readily respond to words as substitutes for the things they conventionally represent, and mistake the expression of a word for a real commitment to achieving the thing it denotes. Polonius is the archetype of the politician, and, sadly, also too many psychotherapists and counsellors: hearing himself using words for a widely approved objective, he tries to persuade others, and more importantly himself, that this is what actually motivates him.

Shakespeare uses the character of Polonius to illustrate the mistaken but perennial assumption that the true self is something that can be easily known. The famous opening line of Hamlet is, “Who’s there?”, and at an important level the whole play is a meditation on the question of what identity is. Who and what exactly is the true self? The answer is, it’s very hard to know and we never know for sure.

Our age, however, like the age of Polonius, and like every age, does not want to acknowledge this. We defend ourselves against the difficult challenge of discovering the true self by pretending to ourselves that we already know what it is, or that there is some reliable formula that is guaranteed to discover it for us.

Freud reflected deeply on Hamlet (see his famous analysis of the play, alongside that of Sophocles’ Oedipus, in The Interpretation of Dreams). And the question, “Who’s there?” could as easily be taken as a maxim for psychoanalytic therapy as a whole. The most important assumption underlying psychoanalytic therapy is that we do not know who’s there until we are prepared to undertake the difficult and sometimes disturbing work needed to find out. It requires effort and it requires courage. As Freud pointed out, we resist knowing who’s there because we have strong and hidden motives for not knowing who’s there. For Freud, overcoming this resistance was the most difficult and the most important part of psychotherapy.

We need to be aware that there are however two distinct ideas of the true self in the history of psychoanalytic therapy and in psychotherapy generally, although they are intimately connected with each other.

The first is the one that is implicit throughout Freud’s work. This comprises the existing impulses and feelings that we are reluctant to acknowledge consciously. We are reluctant to do this because we feel they are unworthy of the kind of person we would like to think we are, or because we feel others on whom we depend would condemn us for having them, or because we feel they are unacceptable for some other reason.

The second one is the future self that Nature intends us to develop into and become. This is the one that Nietzsche, the philosopher and secular prophet, emphasises, in a way that Freud, the sober medical man, does not.

In his early essay of 1874, for instance, on Schopenhauer as Educator, Nietzsche remarks, “your true self [dein wahres Wesen] is immeasurably high above you”. [152] Finding our true selves, in other words, is the work of a lifetime. It is not something we stumble upon one day and then possess for the rest of our lives, it is something we have to spend our lives creating and building.

This perspective on the self as inherently transcendent, as something that does not exist until we create it, and is never completed, continues all the way through Nietzsche’s work. It is the kernel of his famous idea of the Übermensch; this is simply a word for the individual who strives to confront him- or herself with honesty and to overcome that within the self which remains fixated on the injuries of life, using these as an excuse not to develop. The idea is expressed again in the epigraph of Nietzsche’s last, posthumous work, his autobiography, Ecce Homo: “How one becomes what one is [Wie man wird, was man ist]”.

And it is the true self in this second, prospective, sense that Winnicott somewhat gingerly introduces into psychoanalysis in twentieth mid-century. In doing so Winnicott does not mention Nietzsche. But it is clear he is referring to this idea of discovering the meaning that is unique to one’s life, and he is suggesting this as, ultimately, the best response we can make to the emotional distress that being human inevitably entails. Winnicott is in effect proposing the development of the “true self” as the proper aim of psychoanalytic therapy. And in large measure, this is what it has become. This is the overarching value that justifies psychoanalytic therapy.

Tomorrow: (8) The Aim of Psychoanalytic Therapy

Author: Marcus Bowman PhD

I am a psychoanalytic therapist working in Cork.

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