What is it that makes you, you? Is there even a self? Let’s consider a few different approaches.
A fundamental concept in Buddhism is non-self. The word Anatta is used for the principle that “there is in humans no permanent, underlying substance that can be called the soul” (Wikipedia). The belief that there is a self is viewed as a source of suffering. I’m not sufficiently knowledgable about Buddhism to know the subtleties around how much this refers to a lack of permanent soul versus a lack of self in this lifetime.
There are various philosophic views on the self, one of them being that it is the source of consciousness. Many of us are familiar with Descartes’ belief “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). In psychology, the self plays a major role in motivation, cognition, feeling, and social identity.
In sociology, “the self can be redefined as a dynamic, responsive process that structures neural pathways according to past and present environments including material, social, and spiritual aspects” (Wikipedia). Concepts of the self can differ culturally, with western cultures being more individualistic and eastern cultures more interdependent. The development of a sense of self is shaped by social interactions as well as the physical environment.
Acceptance and commitment therapy
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) would say that the self is the context in which thoughts and feelings occur rather than the content of those thoughts and feelings. One metaphor for this is that the self is a chessboard and the chess pieces that move across it are the thoughts and feelings we experience.
I’m not a big fan of the idea that there is no self. I would agree that there is no substance that constitutes a soul, and I see value in the idea that we’re all essentially the same in terms of our shared humanity, but I do believe we all have a unique inner mental landscape.
I like the ACT idea of self-as-context. While it can sometimes seem like thoughts and feelings constitute who we are, I think both of those are far more transient than our core selves. ACT places a lot of emphasis on values, and while the prioritization of different values may shift over time, for the most part values are likely to be linked to the core self.
My own identities
When I first got depressed, I conceptualized very distinct ill and well selves. This made sense to me in part because I was fully well before I got sick, so it felt very much like the depression was superimposed on top of my regular self. It was also because my head works differently when I’m depressed. Regardless of the content of the thoughts or the specific emotions felt, I have a different way of thinking and feeling when I’m depressed. And for me, that different way of thinking and feeling constitutes a different self.
I also feel like I have segments of myself that are dedicated to certain roles. The nurse side of me functions better than other aspects because it’s more automatic; I’ve been doing it long enough that a lot just comes without having to think about it.
The family-facing side of myself has become very dysfunctional because it only knows the old way of being with my family, and that’s just not available anymore.
Considering what most defines my self in all its different aspects, part of it would be my values, and part would be my way of thinking. I’m very cerebral, and I approach the world with curiosity – I want to know more, be exposed to more, and understand more. My mind moves quite sluggishly when I’m depressed, so it can really get in the way of that core part of me.
For me, a sense of self helps to anchor me when the world (and my illness) try to knock me over. My own inner experience is different from everyone else’s, and I think that diversity is a good thing. I also believe that we’re each entitled to be our own selves, regardless of any pressure applied by others.
How would you define your self?
The ACT Fundamentals mini-ebook/workbook, available from the MH@H Download Centre, provides an introduction to acceptance and commitment therapy, including cognitive defusion and aligning actions to values.