The fragmented beauty of the inner world.
The part of the mind that Freud described as ‘the ego’ can be described as ‘I’ – the part of the personality that we think of as ‘ourselves’ and that needs to arbitrate between our drives, passions and desires and the internalised constraints of the society within which we live and work. We all know the struggle of wanting to do something, like punching some work colleague smack in the mouth, and suppressing it, only to stick a middle finger up at an impatient driver. The id and the superego are easy enough to define: one wants sugar all day and the other wants us to be disciplined and well-behaved. For those in committed partnerships, one imagines random strangers getting naked and the other reminds us to behave like a civilised adult.
However, it’s the ‘I’ that I’m concerned with. What is the ‘self’? Some say it’s a construct, always changing, thought up by the imagination – a construct that exists within the particular cultural and social context of each individual. The ‘self’ might be ‘kind’ or ‘generous’, ‘passionate’ or ‘brave’. The ‘self’ might simply be described as a character that we have assigned to ourselves and thus ‘self-esteem’ relates to how that perception is created. Therefore it can change with focused work in this area of linguistic description.
I don’t think the ‘self’ is exactly this simple a construct. I think it’s the part of our brain that experiences the world, and interprets each and every experience that confronts it, in a way that works for the individual. When, for example, I stand in front of a crowd and am asked to speak, my ‘self’ is the fragile hologram shaped by a combination of abject fear and the requirement to present myself as confident, articulate and knowledgeable. My ‘self’, therefore, is the receptor of a bombardment of emotional, sensory and intellectual stimulation, required in each given moment to interpret these and respond in a way that doesn’t shatter me in a hundred different ways. As people, we are exposed to dangers, both real and perceived, on a minute by minute basis, and our ‘selves’ have to negotiate these in a delicate balance of inner and outer worlds.
Our ‘selves’ therefore are amazing, intricate marvels of evolutionary development. But how do most of us face each moment and its infinity of stimuli? There are a gazillion answers to this but I suspect that lots of us use a variety of defensive techniques. Humour is one of them. Intellectualisation is another. How many of us show our ‘selves’? How many of us even know our ‘selves’?
I believe that we are drawn to those who feel intensely. It’s surely why we love animals. They do not hide behind humour or intellect but demand love and attention. Anyone who sees the bliss in a dog greeting its owner, the complete abandonment of joy and adoration, smiles in recognition of its purity. When we see a scared cat, revealing its fear in a cowering posture, seeking to make itself as small as possible, we feel a sense of love for the helpless creature. Children and babies captivate us with their emotional transparency. When they’re sad, their lips shoot out and when they’re happy they jump and hug themselves. I’m not sure what to say about people who don’t feel these reactions, other than that I pity them because anyone who doesn’t like animals or children has really just lost at life already!
At times of emotional need in my life I have attracted people who want to defend me. Open and obvious vulnerability brings attention as does passion, excitement, happiness and enthusiasm. It’s fine to be a closed book – if we want to live a lonely life. If we want to be loved, then we need to let at least one person in. Which leads me to connection.
What connects people? Is it inane conversation about the weather, how many kids they’ve got or what their job is? Although these chats can be sociable, enjoyable and engaging, they are precursors to true connection, which only occurs with the sharing of emotion. Not just the re-telling of emotion, but the experience of it. Tears in the eyes, whether of laughter or grief, bring an opportunity for that spark of magic. The re-hashing of emotion isn’t the same; it doesn’t work in words alone. It’s the experience. Being present in the face of genuine emotion is a privilege and a gift. If somebody lets us into their world, they show us who they are on the inside. They show us their ‘selves’. And only in that revelation, can we truly connect.
It is these connections that make us healthy. Knowing that at least one person knows us and has experienced the revealing of our emotions and has our backs makes us live longer. I don’t mind having friends on the fringe, but I want to know people deeply, too. At least a handful is enough for me. Some people need less.
Even outside of my closest friendships, I love to discover what people experience. I remember and treasure heartfelt observations from others. At Newark Toad Rescue, a high-end operation which involves buckets, nets, torches and high-vis jackets, I chat with a woman who obviously loves the warty little creatures as much as I do, for ‘their intrinsic value’ as she put it. This revelation of her inner world and perception, combined with the tenderness with which she places toads into her red bucket, makes me feel connected to her. A child told me recently that his mum makes him happy and I felt warm and fuzzy. Another child started to cry when it was time for us to leave, and his untamed emotion made us all adore him.
Who we all are on the inside is an amazing kaleidoscope of perceptions, memories, images, connections and experiential truth. We all have this treasure trove of worth within. It’s not connected with what we do in my opinion. People do terrible things because the ‘self’ has experienced and interpreted something badly, in a way that doesn’t reflect the society within which they operate. It doesn’t make them fundamentally less worthy. Like the toad, each individual has intrinsic worth.
Psychoanalytic theory believes that anxiety, depression and a host of other mental conditions occur because of an imbalance in the parts of the personality. Superego has a lot to answer for with its internalised shame. The healing of the ego, or ‘I’, is the only way to heal the whole person. It is possible through the formation of a ‘bond of trust’ with another person, who may be a therapist, and the development of health promoting behaviours in daily life. The type of therapy doesn’t matter. It’s the ‘bond of trust’ that creates the healing.
Therapy provides an opportunity for two ‘selves’ to connect in a way that probably doesn’t often occur in daily life, because of time constraints, embarrassment, self-absorption and distraction. As a therapist, I hope I can bring my deepest self, my ‘I’ into the therapy room and meet other ‘I’s, and connect with their experiences, perceptions and emotional lives. The privilege of doing this work is something that fills me with anticipation because it’s real in a way that most of us rarely encounter.
And outside of the therapy room, I want to focus on the fact that it’s this ‘bond of trust’ that promotes healing, no matter what the approach or the technique. I want to focus on that because, in the final analysis, what heals us every time is love. Not the self-seeking, pleasure-grabbing, exoticised type of love that is portrayed in our shallow media, but the sharing, compassionate, powerful acceptance of one another’s deepest selves.