In my writings to date on the “The Makeup of Mind”, I have revisited and reviewed behaviour and feelings emanating from well known and in some cases well-defined areas and activities within the brain e.g. the limbic system. On the other hand, the self is physical, neural, psychological, social, moral, aesthetic and – as we are about to behold and consider – spiritual. Thus whilst being the same, we are also different, thanks to that constant flow of and interaction with what is given in the genes and the moulding and modifying input from learning and actual experience.
In this blog, I hope to show just how important it is that we neither perceive the “self” to amount, on the one hand, to some kind of profile of disembodied characteristics, ever to be assessed and measured; or on the other, to some form of ‘plasticized’ being, to be moulded, willy-nilly, into whatever shape our personal and environmental circumstances demand or permit. For one thing, each and every one of us is unique and this is the essence of what we call individuality: there never was, is or will be another individual exactly like you or me; a truth which encapsulates and emblazons just one of the many miracles of life. Moreover, it is so important to realise that you and I represent the outcome of, quite literally, millions and millions of learning trials, i.e. trial, error and success. Whilst there is always likely to be a great deal in our lives that is changing, being discarded or renewed, there is so much more – biologically, psychologically, sociologically and, as we shall increasingly see, spiritually – that is constant in essence and that simply ‘breathes’ and radiates an essential continuity and thus assurance.
In truth, there are at least three basic constituent elements of this change and continuity; namely, i. wherewithal we have been endowed; every element – from the most basic to the most complex – of learning; ii. what we acquire over the course of our lives in terms of an interactive and social nature and iii. our potential for spiritual growth and development. It is these three, combined and combining that ensure growth, development and the assurance that the future will continue to be as different as it will indeed resemble the past. The self is – as it were – a kind of essence of the person that we amount to. Clearly, for this reason and because of its elusiveness, objective study of the self is always going to be problematic. Nevertheless, there are certain key points which can be and which need to be made.
The individual’s awareness of his/her personality is an experience, which we all share. From infancy onward, we learn to distinguish our own names by way of identity, as well as the names of and differing relationships to members of our immediate family circle. Similarly, we are able to identify and distinguish the parts of our own body as well as objects in and aspects of the environment, i.e. the world in which we live. As time – and learning – progresses, we come increasingly to recognise and manage responsibility, privilege, position etc. We increasingly recognise the need for and meaning of both pro-active and reactive responses in life, for which sometimes we, at other times others and at still others, both are responsible in a conjoint or conflicting way. The manner in which we come to perceive ourselves and the similarity (or indeed contrast where it exists) of how others perceive us, contributes hugely and at times colourfully to our ongoing self-development. No wonder psychologists frequently fail to agree on what we might call “a general theory of personality”. Nevertheless, there are key elements of what we might call personality structure on which there is general agreement.
I have already stated the view in a previous blog that this is not the place to refer in detail to personality or “self” theories or theorists. However, it is well-nigh impossible to write as I am endeavouring to do here, i.e. about the “self” and how we have come to perceive its makeup, without reference yet again to the name of Sigmund Freud. This is because although much of Freudian psychology as expressed in his psychoanalytic theory has long since been abandoned, Freud did contribute an interesting, almost universal and therefore extremely useful descriptive vocabulary, some elements of which have found their way into popular speech. One very good example of the above might very well cite the way in which most of us have at some point in time referred to the “ego”, either with reference to ourselves or to others. Moreover, in many such instances we have done so without knowing of, in any detail at any rate, the origin of the word. The truth is that Freud’s description and explanation of personality structure not only sums up but brings order and understanding to major aspects of the self already referred to in these blogs.
he first aspect (or as Freud styled it “system”) concerns and consists of wholly unlearned physiological motives and the means of satisfying them, which are also unlearned. In total this amounts to everything that is inherited, including the instincts and is the provider of power to the entire organism. Freud referred to as the “id”: a ‘reservoir’ of psychic energy, concerned only with the inner world of subjective experience and possessing no awareness at all of objective reality.
The second system (which in reality is the organized part of the Id) Freud referred to as the “ego”. Whilst therefore never being entirely independent of the id and from which it derived all of its power, the ego functions as a kind of mediator between basic instinctual urges and requirements and the actual environment. In order to perform its work, the ego exercises control over all the cognitive and intellectual functions. Thus it is made up of learned acts for satisfying motives and of the perceived self. Where such learned acts are powerfully developed into a strong and robust perception of self, we talk about “a strong ego” and conversely so where the phrase “weak ego” is employed). The third aspect of “the self” amounts to the summation of socially derived motives influencing and supporting (and sometimes conflicting with) the previous two. (Freud referred to this as the “superego”.) Of course, it is a mistake to regard these three· elements or compartments of personality, i.e. of the self, as anything more than a relatively easy and convenient way of summarizing what we have come to know about personality and self. They should certainly not be perceived as lines of demarcation which distinguish or separate them.
There remain two final and important points to be made in this blog on “the self” and the first is this: although, hopefully, you have found its contents interesting and informative, do be careful not to take leave of or in any way depart from the constraints of common-sense. This in fact was the advice given to a class full of honours psychology students (of which I was a member) many summers ago now, by an old mentor who also – as I well remember – went to pains to counsel restraint, patience and above all, “a sense of humour”. The second point concerns the question as to why this particular blog on “the self” should be considered to have any importance at all to the overall subject matter of mind and spirit? It is because it is through self and – in this the life we know – through a physical brain and body that we come at all to experience and express what is to be known and shared of mind and spirit.
- Just out of interest, Freud used another term descriptive of the self, with which we are familiar, namely “libido”. By this he meant a kind of ‘storehouse’ of motives and ” instinctual” reactions and responses for satisfying motives. According to Freud, the “libido” (or in other words, motives or instinct is of the id) is frequently blocked by both the ego and superego.