January 31, 2012
stronger our sense of selfhood, the better we deal with change,
challenge, growth, uncertainty, the unknown, loss and the unexpected.
Likewise, the greater the loss of selfhood, the more likely we are
to have a major mental health problem, argues acclaimed author Dr
Terry Lynch in his new book Selfhood.
Below, psychminded exclusively publishes a section of the book.
What is a human being, and how do we live?
The term ‘self’ is often used in everyday language.
As we end conversations with others, we frequently say ‘mind
yourself’, or ‘look after yourself’. People who
are nervous before stressful situations are often advised to ‘just
be yourself’. What is this ‘self’ we speak of
so frequently? This question has been the focus of many books and
countless debates down through the centuries. A detailed discussion
of this topic is beyond the remit of this book. For practical purposes
as I see it, the self refers to our awareness of who we are and
how we experience ourselves within our world. A core aspect of the
self is our inner, private world, the ever-present flow of our thoughts,
feelings and senses within our own personal experience of human
are many aspects to who we are and to our experience of ourselves
and the world. We have a physical aspect: our body, the vehicle
through which we experience life and make contact with others and
the world. We have an emotional aspect: we continually experience
a wide range of emotions as we journey through life. A psychological
aspect: we have ongoing streams of thoughts. We have social and
relational aspects: we seek contact both within relationships and
within a range of social contacts, networks and interests.
Relationships tend to be extremely important to us. We have a sexual
aspect: sexuality is a core element of being human. Many people
believe that we have a spiritual aspect. People vary on this but,
for many, it is an essential aspect of being a person.
In my experience, human beings function best when all of these aspects
are in a state of healthy activity and flow, when our needs as they
apply to all of these aspects are generally being met. I often use
the analogy of a multi-lane highway to explain this to clients.
On a busy, seven-lane highway, drivers can switch from lane to lane
as appropriate to their needs. We human beings need to be in a position
to access all aspects of our being as appropriate. On a major seven-lane
highway, each lane is open and in regular use by many drivers. If
some lanes are closed to public use, then the enormous volume of
traffic that previously had seven lanes to work with now must be
channelled through the remaining lanes.
Similarly, many of us invest enormous amounts of energy on one or
two of these aspects, leaving others unattended to. Some of us place
major emphasis on our physical aspect, such as our appearance or
our level of physical fitness, whilst paying little attention to
the emotional aspect of ourselves, our inner feeling states. Others
devote themselves and the bulk of their attention to their spiritual
aspect, sometimes forgetting to tend to their other aspects. In
my experience, there can sometimes be a convenient avoidance process
going on here. Many people choose to focus on the aspects of themselves
with which they feel most comfortable. They may therefore be avoiding
important aspects of their being, around which they have considerable
fear and insecurity, often their emotional, relational, social or
Unwittingly, we may focus solely on the aspects with which we are
comfortable, in order to avoid the aspects we are less comfortable
with and the consequent challenges they pose. This applies to many
people who live mostly in their heads, in their psychological aspect.
They often find that their thoughts are racing. Some of their other
channels of experience and expression such as their emotional, relational,
sexual and spiritual aspects are often not open and flowing. Their
energy gets channelled through the few lanes that remain open, frequently
including the psychological aspect (thoughts), which is then in
a state of almost constant over-activity and overload.
Balance – such a key theme – is important here. Later
in the book, I write about the rainbow of emotions. The rainbow
analogy applies here also. We humans function best when all of our
aspects are alive and in balance, like the rainbow, where all the
colours are equally represented in their full glory and in perfect
balance with each other.
From birth through to death, we are continually experiencing ourselves
– our thoughts, feelings and sensations. Every interaction
we have with people and the world is real to us only insofar as
we experience it from within our being, within our personal, individual
and private world. People’s reactions to external events vary
considerably. As we will see, our level of selfhood plays a major
part in our personal reactions to life.
We spend much of our time meeting the various needs that surface
with us. As the strength of a particular need builds up, we become
increasingly intent on satisfying that need, on being freed from
the pain or other unpleasant sensation arising from the as-yet unmet
need. We want to bring the situation to a satisfactory conclusion.
Our need to go to the toilet is an example of how our needs can
escalate if not attended to. Until that need is met, everything
else pales into insignificance, but not all of our needs are as
pressing as our need to go to the toilet. For example, while we
may experience a great deal of loneliness, we may decide to defer
our relationship needs out of fear of exposing ourselves to the
risks involved in close relationships, including the risk of rejection.
We may attempt to compensate for this loss by increasing our focus
on other aspects of ourselves such as our physical or psychological
the process of cultivating the components of selfhood may highlight
that we have many needs that we may have deferred, sometimes for
decades. There is always a price to be paid for doing so, the loss
of selfhood and the losses we endure as a result of having low selfhood
and not living a full life, great losses indeed.
The key importance of selfhood
According to the World Health Organisation, two key aspects of a
person’s quality of life are their perceptions of themselves,
and their experience of their interactions with the world in which
they live. Selfhood is a core aspect of both. Our level of happiness
parallels the level of satisfaction we obtain from our interactions
with the world and the degree to which we experience our needs being
met. Our level of selfhood is central to the degree to which we
experience our needs being met, and therefore mirrors the degree
of happiness we experience. This illustrates how important selfhood
is for each of us.
following analogy may help to illustrate the difference between
these two ways of living – with and without a solid sense
of selfhood. Picture two houses adjacent to each other. It is wintertime.
The icy winter weather causes the pipes connected to the water storage
tank in the attic to burst. Both houses are similarly affected.
The contents of the water tank flood each house. The occupants immediately
set out to tackle the problem, although in very different ways.
Realising that burst pipes in the attic were the cause of the flooding,
John calls a plumber, who duly replaces the pipes. Problem solved,
no more leakage. John then sets about cleaning up the mess. This
takes several days, but at least he knows that the problem is now
Faced with precisely the same problem, John’s neighbour, Jim,
opts for a different approach. According to Jim’s logic, the
solution is to keep the tank full. He therefore arranges a system
of filling the tank at a rate that surpassed the speed at which
the water drains from the tank. He organises pumps and hoses from
the main water supply on the street in through an upstairs window,
into the attic and ending up in the water tank. Because the water
quickly drains from the tank, John sets the flow of water to the
maximum level as he tries frantically to keep the tank filled with
enough water to meet the needs of his home.
The importance of fixing the source of the haemorrhage of water
does not strike Jim. Instead, he is fixated on maintaining an adequate
water level in the attic tank. Water is cascading everywhere. Jim,
his wife and children spend their time running around the house
with buckets and mops in a frantic but inevitably unsuccessful attempt
to keep the house somewhat dry, organised and functional.
A week later, John has almost forgotten about the burst pipes, his
attic tank is working properly, and the mess caused by the leaking
water has been cleared up. John and his family are free to carry
on with their everyday lives. Jim’s house is a different story.
Water is still flowing everywhere, throughout the house, into the
gardens and onto the street. Jim and his family have to give this
ongoing situation their full attention. All other activities, with
the exception of the essentials, such as eating and using the bathroom,
have to be dispensed with. Jim and his family are still battling
with their ongoing crisis, becoming increasingly worn out and overwhelmed.
They cannot take much more of this, but with no other solution in
sight, they have to keep up this enormous effort indefinitely.
You might understandably feel that this is an incredible story.
No one would deal with burst pipes in the manner in which Jim approached
the problem. Yet there are parallels between this tale and how many
of us live. This is precisely how a person with a low sense of selfhood
seeks to replenish the components of selfhood. They frantically
look outside of themselves, to other people, roles or activities,
for the characteristics and experiences that only they can provide
for themselves in the form of the components of selfhood.
When they do receive what they are frantically seeking from others,
approval, esteem, praise, acceptance, for example, often far less
frequently than they had hoped given their enormous efforts, they
are initially delighted. However, the benefits are always short-lived,
rarely lasting longer than a few minutes. As with Jim’s water
tank, there is a chronic leakage problem. The sense of wellbeing
they experience as a result of the external approval rapidly vanishes,
like Jim’s water disappearing through the burst pipes. Having
no self-generated sense of these qualities, they cannot hold on
to, internalise and retain them when they are received from others,
so they disappear without trace within minutes, often within seconds.
They search constantly for approval, esteem, acceptance, and all
the other components of selfhood from outside of themselves. They
do not turn their attention to the one solution that will work:
repairing the haemorrhage of their own provision of these qualities
by raising their own level of selfhood. Once they deal with this
problem, the equivalent of repairing the burst pipes in the above
story, like John they find that they do not need to constantly keep
filling their tank up from outside sources. They now provide these
qualities for themselves.
The greater our sense of selfhood, the greater our ability to deal
effectively with change, challenge, growth, uncertainty, the unknown,
loss and the unexpected. A well-developed sense of selfhood greatly
enhances our ability to create healthy relationships, healthy boundaries,
to interact effectively with others, and to carve out a meaningful
life. The need for a strong sense of selfhood, for contentment and
wellbeing is a key aspect of being human. At the core of each of
us lies a uniqueness and individuality that we long to experience
and express. When we take action in one aspect of selfhood, a ripple
effect often follows. We experience beneficial effects within other
aspects of our sense of selfhood and how effectively we deal with
Low self-esteem is often described as the kernel of a person’s
life or mental health problem. Sometimes it is put down to low self-confidence.
Other terms are used to describe the nature of the problems that
hold people back in their lives. None fully describe the issue in
question. Numerous books have been written on self-esteem, as if
this is the root of the difficulties which many people experience
in their lives. While low self-esteem is certainly one characteristic
of people with a low sense of selfhood, their level of self-esteem
often exceeds the degree to which they experience other components
of selfhood, self-confidence and self-empowerment for example. They
are often acutely and painfully aware that they desire a happier,
more fulfilled life, that it should not be this way. While it is
true that many people do not hold themselves in high esteem, this
explanation is insufficient to accurately describe the nature of
The heart of the problem is more broadly based: loss of selfhood
lies at the core of the issue. It is no coincidence that people
whose sense of selfhood is low are far more likely to struggle in
life and to experience mental health problems. The reverse is also
the case. People with a strong sense of selfhood tend to be happier,
less prone to mental health problems, better able to handle change,
loss and uncertainty. Life in the twenty-first century can be pretty
challenging. Living without a strong sense of selfhood can be extremely
difficult, leading to great emotional pain and distress. Selfhood
is a key filter through which we experience life. Therefore, fostering
selfhood is vitally important to the cultivation of mental wellness.
I am not aware of any other factor other than low selfhood that
is always present in people who experience mental health problems.
Take food, for example. Some people feel that a healthy diet is
a major contributor to mental wellness. A healthy, balanced diet
is to be encouraged for us all, including those of us who experience
mental health problems. Eating healthily is an example of good self-care,
one of the components of selfhood. The discipline and ritual involved
in preparing and eating healthy food often has a beneficial effect
on our mental health. Nevertheless, many people who have experienced
little or no mental health problems have patterns of eating that
fall far short of a healthy balanced diet. Many others who stick
to a healthy, balanced diet experience major mental health problems.
The link between food and mental health is not nearly as consistent
as the link between mental health and selfhood.
I have yet to meet a person diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar
disorder, major depression, an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive
disorder, or any other major mental health problem, who had a solid
and strong sense of selfhood, and whose methods of dealing with
the world resulted in their needs being met effectively across the
wide range of human needs. Some people have become quite skilled
at hiding their loss of selfhood from others and sometimes from
themselves. For example, behind arrogance and brashness there frequently
lies a loss of selfhood, of which the person may be painfully aware.
A common theme that I have noticed in people with severe mental
health problems is that prior to the emergence of these problems,
the person’s sense of selfhood has tended to be quite fragile.
They have already experienced the gradual accumulation of great
self-doubt. This loss of selfhood may not be obvious to others,
since the person may go to great lengths to disguise it, but it
is there. One particular change or a series of changes, losses or
challenges (which objectively may not appear to be particularly
challenging) can push that person over the edge into overwhelm and
turmoil. It is how a person experiences a situation that dictates
the significance of the particular situation for them, not how others
might experience and interpret that situation.
Far less frequently I have encountered people who have an existing
solid sense of selfhood and have nonetheless developed mental health
problems. It generally takes a major shock or sudden, profound life
change to undermine their sense of selfhood to such an extent that
they become prone to serious mental health problems. Having a fragile
sense of selfhood greatly increases a person’s risk of becoming
overwhelmed when confronted with change, loss and challenge.
The ever-increasing generalised anxiety that usually precedes the
development of all major mental illnesses can in part be understood
as a progressively frantic response to the accumulation of self-doubt.
Life seems to slip increasingly beyond the person’s control,
and they feel utterly powerless to stop the slide that they can
see unfolding before their eyes. What an overwhelming and desperate
situation in which to find oneself. The greater the loss of selfhood,
the more frenetic the person’s experiences, and the more frantic
their responses and reactions. They feel as if they are drowning
all the time, as though they are constantly living in an intense
hurricane where their survival as they perceive it is by no means
There is considerable inter-connection between the various components
of selfhood and dealing effectively with the world. A person with
a low level of selfhood will tend to have most or all components
of their selfhood affected to a major degree. There will be a parallel
impact on how effective or ineffective they are in dealing with
their world, and getting their needs met.
Having a solid sense of selfhood enables us to know who we are,
and therefore know who we are not. A recurring feature of people
experiencing mental health problems is great self-doubt about both
who they are and what they are capable of, and who they are not
and what they might do to themselves or others. I have worked with
several people who worried that they might harm others, particularly
children, often their own children. Having explored this in detail
with the person, it generally becomes very clear to me that these
people would not hurt a fly. These fears often have their origin
in enormous self-doubt. Because the person does not have a solid
sense of who they are, they do not have a solid sense of who they
are not, or what they might or might not do to others.
The spectrum of selfhood ranges from those who have a high, solid
sense of selfhood right through to people who have virtually no
sense of selfhood at all, and all levels in between. The level of
disruption created by loss of selfhood mirrors the degree of loss
of selfhood. The greater the loss of selfhood, the more likely it
is that a major mental health problem may emerge at some stage in
the person’s life.
Terry Lynch works for the Irish Ministry for Health's Expert Group
on Mental Health Policy whose role is to shape the direction of
mental health policy in Ireland. He is the author of Beyond Prozac:
Healing Mental Distress. Buy
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