Identity, Self, & Relationships

What Does the Self Consist of?

What does the self consist of? - sketch of a woman's head

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?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Fundamentals mini-ebook

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.

24 thoughts on “What Does the Self Consist of?”

  1. Well yes interesting but this line is not factual

    Personally, I’m not a big fan of the idea that there is no self.

    A challenge. For me Marty is the identity I answer too.

    Now trace back your “I”

    Explore your inner world and find that “I” you believe in

    Facts are facts

    Buddhists call it non duality and it is a prerequisite for finding happiness. So that statement is false unless you can show me that self

    Functional. RI’s have not located a self but mapped and documented many many processes.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this lately and I increasingly think that the concepts of ‘soul’ and ‘self’ are not the same, because I see the soul as timeless and the self as changing over time both in the content of my thoughts and feelings and on a qualitative level (as in the thoughts of pre-verbal babies are probably very different to what I would consider my own thoughts to be). Although I don’t as yet have a really good definition for either soul or self.

    1. I think that difference makes sense, and regardless of whether people believe in a timeless soul or not, the way they are talked about is different.

  3. The Self is for me my core being. There is some life energy and that is the self. Like you said there are some sub-selves, being a daughter, a nurse, … and they act accordingly to the core Self. What you describe a some functional part of you before you were ill, I don’t feel that.
    I became ill when all my subselves decided to go their own way to keep some balance and I ended up scattered and asking myself: Who am I? I’m working on discovering what the Self needs to progress and how the subselves can act but within the reason of my core values and norms. This may sound all goofy but when you think as your Self being a life energy, there is no real/materialistic self. It is the Self that breaths and lives. For me that is the non-self that Buddhist talk about (I maybe so wrong) and the art of living would be to cultivate the self in a positive direction (what that may be).

    1. That’s so interesting what you said about illness happening when the subselves went their own way. And I think values are a good way to keep in touch with that core self that holds it all together.

  4. Wow, Ashley this is a fabulous post. I think the question of self is something I used to ignore before I started healing. I never thought of my self as a self-it was better to be invisible in mind, body & spirit. The last 11 years it has become more important to me to have a sense of self and all that it means to me. Thanks for starting this conversation. ❤️

  5. I do believe who are changes based what we believe daily. I like to believe we have a soul that lives on. One I have heard related to this and mental illness is that somewhat of an evil soul is attached to us that is making us feel the way we do or it has something to do with our soul from a different lifetime.

    1. There’s a lot of potential for growth inherent in the idea that what we believe changes who we are. It can go in the opposite direction, but there’s certainly positive potential.

  6. While reading this, I felt as if I was reading a little about myself.
    When I used to work, I was on automatic pilot. I knew my job like the back of my hand. If people had questions or were looking for things, I knew the answers and whereabouts of everything.
    Family = Same page with you. Minus my mom. She’s it.
    When depressed, I’m lost. There is no oher way I can frame that feeling.
    I do ut up a good fight through it, but like today… Today was a massive crash day for me. I hadn’t slept for nearly a day and a half. Finally, I fell asleep at 7 this morning. But, I had to wake up my roommate.
    I tried, I gave up, I went back to bed, She’s her own responsibility, not mine.
    (Sorry, went off track there). need more sleep.
    Great post, very interesting.

  7. I saved this to read when I had a long quiet break.

    Defining self is something I’ve always struggled with, while other people seem to have no problem identifying what makes them them. Part of it also is that I don’t believe in what is commonly known as a soul.

    I really like the chessboard metaphor.

    Whatever my self is, it’s not feelings because those change. Values, desires too really. I think it must be something more basic like a fingerprint, but mental. Something that forms as a baby learns language, or accumulates memories/experiences. I suppose it doesn’t have to involve language… a dog can have a self.

    Even when my father had dementia and was losing his words and memories there was still something that kept him him and not someone else. Well, at that point anyway. He died of heart disease before advanced dementia.

    I will ponder this again…

  8. This is so interesting, and something that I’ve been working on recently. I also like the idea of connecting ones’ values to their “self” (even though values might change over time, like you said). I believe that what we see in many people isn’t necessarily their true “self,” but that deep down everybody does have a unique core personality. But it may get lost under other layers, such as anxiety or fear.

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