The 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 existence.
There 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 sexual aspects.
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 aspects.
Beginning 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.
The 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 repaired.
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 the world.
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 difficulty.
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 guaranteed.
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.
* Dr 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 Selfhood here