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Self Identity

Glossary of Spiritual Wisdom

Excerpts about Self Identity

A Dynamic Structure Comprised Not Only of Self-Representations but Also of Inner Activity

The self-identity structure is a dynamic structure comprised not only of self-representations, but also of inner activity (Kohut’s tension arc). This “dynamic essence of the self” is an automatic, compulsive and incessant activity, which is mostly unconscious. We saw in Chapter 8 that the main components of this activity are rejection, hope and desire. Repeated experience of the stillness of black emptiness exposes this activity as mental agitation, which now intensifies and reaches feverish proportions, as an obsessive inner activity whose ultimate purpose is to perpetuate itself. It becomes increasingly obvious that the details of this activity, the content of what the self rejects and what it hopes for, are immaterial. What matters is the activity itself. The notion of giving up this inner activity appears to the self as defeat, a surrender to hopelessness. The mental activity intensifies in an effort to avoid deep hopelessness and helplessness, despair and depression. These feelings are part of a narcissistic depression and deep hopelessness that the student feels about being her real self. This heavy and painful state is characterized by inertia, dullness, and self-hate. One feels existential hopelessness and despair about the possibility of existing authentically, and about receiving support for one’s authenticity. 

Awareness that Begins to Transform the Self-Identity Making It More Flexible and Realistic

This process of self-realization naturally applies pressure on the conventional sense of identity. Issues arise which affect the central narcissistic structure, that of self-identity. The transformation of narcissism consists largely of the transformation of this structure, leading to the realization of the Essential Identity. The increasing pressure on the structure of self-identity exposes its underlying vulnerability and shakiness. The student attempts to find ways to shore up his sense of identity, but can no longer turn so easily to idealization; he has seen through it. So he turns to mirroring self-objects to help him preserve the integrity and cohesion of his capacity for self-recognition. This manifests as the need for mirroring, particularly in the mirror transference onto the teacher. Investigating this narcissistic transference in depth leads us to a thorough understanding of the sense of identity and its underlying structure. We become increasingly aware of the properties of the self-identity, which we have up to now taken for granted to be part of who we really are. This awareness begins to transform the self-identity, making it more flexible and realistic. So this structure becomes less and less opaque, until it is transparent enough to reveal the essential identity. This is the central process of the transformation of narcissism, which begins by observing and understanding the need to be seen and mirrored. 

Concluding that the Self-Representation is Inevitably Incomplete, False and Distorted when it Excludes the Essence of the Self which is Being as Presence

The conclusion we are compelled to adopt, supported by direct experience and the knowledge of the deepest spiritual teachings of humanity, is that the self-representation is inevitably incomplete, false, and distorted, when it excludes the essence of the self, which is Being as presence. This incomplete identity also gives one a sense of weakness, vulnerability and superficiality. If we integrate this observation with previous segments of our exploration, we are led to a shocking conclusion. We have seen that since presence cannot be captured in a representation, the self-representation cannot include essential presence. Thus, since the normal ego identity is part of, and an expression of, the self-representation, the self-identity is inherently incomplete and distorted. Thus, normal identity is inevitably weak, superficial, and vulnerable.

Recalling Mahler’s notion that the structure of self-identity is based on representations reflecting the inner core of the self—for Mahler, it is the body —we can see that the incompleteness of the self-representation specifically affects the substructure of self-identity. It is thus this substructure that is weakened by the absence of Being in the self-representation. This account clarifies our view of the fundamental narcissism of everyday life. It shows that the conventional experience of the self as determined and patterned by the self-representation, is bound to involve a fundamental weakness of identity. Also, the relation between narcissism and self-realization can now be understood in relation to a specific psychic structure, the self-identity, and a particular affect, the feeling of identity. 

Emptiness that is the Direct Consequence of Alienation from the Essential Identity

The narcissistic injury, that is, the emptiness-wound and its various associated affects and reactions, is covered over by the self-identity, through the identification with self-images and their associated affects. The overall structure of self-identity is sometimes experienced as a shell around the deficient emptiness. This shows very clearly that the experience of being an empty shell—which is reported frequently by individuals suffering from narcissism—refers to the psychic structure of self-identity, and that the emptiness inside this shell is the direct consequence of the alienation from the Essential Identity. 

Identity Itself is a Source of Initiative and Action

The nuclear self, the core of the bipolar self as defined by Kohut, is related to what we have been describing as the self-identity. Our discussion of identity has shown that in addition to ambitions and ideals, the identity itself is a source of initiative and action. The self-identity structure includes self-representations which underlie ambitions and ideals, but it also includes other categories of representations which are important sources of action and initiative. We do not need to go into detail here, for it is a common understanding that people have other motivations, like compassion, love, self-expression, or aggression, that impel them to act. The existence of these other motivations does not necessarily contradict Kohut’s formulation, because they can function as the ground for ambitions and ideals. Ambitions and ideals are expressions of major substructures of the self-identity, organizing the various components of identity—specifically those related to motivation for action—in higher level organizations structured around the categories of ambitions and ideals. This is how Kohut views the development of the bipolar self, seeing the two poles as the two primary substructures of the self, with the ambitions pole developing through the integration of childhood grandiosity, and the ideals pole through the integration of the idealization of the parents (Kohut, 1977). We have established, then, that identity in general, and not only its substructures, functions as the center of initiative and action. This is an important point; in some sense the maintenance of a given identity is part of the motivation of most psychological activity.  

Normal Identity is Ultimately an Empty Shell which is Not Supported by Anything Authentic

We saw in Chapter 11 that the normal sense of identity is inherently weak and brittle since it lacks recognition of a more fundamental identity, the Essential Identity. It naturally follows that the normal sense of identity, and the structure of self-identity it is based on, is not only inherently weak and insecure, but also cannot be supported in any true way. Truth cannot support something false. The normal identity is ultimately an empty shell, which is not supported internally by anything authentic. When this shell is deeply investigated, then, it will inevitably be found to lack true support. Underlying the identification with the shell, we always find an emptiness characterized by the affect of no support. The ego sense of identity is supported by psychic structures based on internalized object relations, and by transference situations, that are enactments of those object relations. The idealizing transference is the primary object relation specifically utilized for the purpose of supporting this identity.  

One is Cut Off from the True Self by Identifications with Representations

The final outcome of development is a unified self-representation which is experienced as a sense of being an individual with personal boundaries and a feeling of identity. The feeling of identity is, then, an expression of the substructure of self-identity, which develops primarily through the integration of the inner impressions of the body, which include the impression of the Essential Identity. Thus, the original clear and precise feeling of identity, which is characteristic of the Essential Identity, is replaced by the normal sense of identity felt in the conventional dimension of experience. At the end of this development, then, the self is no longer experienced as an ontological presence. One is cut off from the true self by identification with representations. One’s sense of self is now determined by a representation constructed from past object relations, and structured by the development of internalized object relations, just as object relations theory contends. However, our analysis demonstrates that this theory is not the whole story. The feeling of identity in the self-representation is a vague memory of the true feeling of identity, which existed at the beginning as a characteristic of the Essential Identity. The normal sense of identity is a reflection of something real, but this vague feeling is only a pale reflection of the original, precious self-awareness of one’s true nature. 

Self-Identity Revealed as a Psychic Structure Patterned by Images from Past Experience

As the student works through his ego identifications (the self-images that compose his self-representation), the structure of self-identity begins to be revealed as a psychic structure patterned by images from past experience. Further experience increasingly reveals the unreality and underlying emptiness of this central self-structure. The emptiness and meaninglessness expose the absence of fundamental truth in his normal sense of identity. He begins to realize that what he has been taking to be himself is actually a shell, devoid of any substantial reality or inherent richness. At this point the student literally experiences himself as a hard shell (of various degrees of hardness depending on how defensive he feels) that contains nothing within it. The empty shell feels impoverished, insubstantial, and false. He feels hollow and vacant, as if his body has become a shell of tension with its insides sucked out of it.

Self-Realization Will Challenge Not Only the Self-Identity Structure but all Structures that Support It

In the realization of the Essential Identity, it is useful to discriminate the self-identity from the self-entity; it is specifically the former that replaces the Essential Identity as the sense of self-recognition. However, Being will challenge all structures of the ego-self, and self-realization will challenge not only the self-identity structure, but all structures that support it or are related to it. The most significant of these is the self-entity structure. This structure supports the identity in many ways. It becomes increasingly challenged as Being reveals its more profound dimensions. This aspect of the process manifests initially as the arising need for more primitive forms of idealized and mirroring self-objects. Specifically, the student recognizes his need for a merged relationship that provides support and mirroring. He begins realizing his need to depend on the self-object, to know his experience of himself, and to value it. So he expects the teacher, or significant others in his life, to know how he feels and to satisfy his needs, without him having to communicate them himself. This exposes the need for the merged mirroring self-object, which may also manifest as seeing the self-object as an extension of himself, which has no value or existence independent from him. He becomes hurt and enraged if the self-object does not act solely to please and serve him, if she acts in an independent way that neglects his needs or does not make them her only concern. The absence or loss of this merged self-object allows him to feel an emptiness characterized by the lack of a sense of identity and by loneliness. In this state, he feels the loss of both himself and the other; he is lost and also lonely, indicating the loss of both mirroring and the merged connection. 

Shifting of Identity from the Self-Representation to Being

The capacity for global disidentification allows us to be permanently in touch with our essential presence, although the identity and the self-representation remains in experience. This condition allows the experience of self-realization to arise, at least occasionally, when the identity relaxes to the extent of total absorption by (or into) essential presence. The more this capacity for global disidentification develops, the more frequent, and the deeper, are the experiences of self-realization. This development continues, in principle, until permanent, full self-realization, where total global disidentification coincides with complete absorption of the self-representation, and complete openness and flexibility of identity. Complete flexibility of identity raises the phenomenon of disidentification to a new level, beyond the normal egoic experience. This flexibility involves the dissolution of self-identity, or more accurately, the cessation of the activity of identifying. This condition, which occurs in isolated experiences of self- realization but is the permanent condition of full self-realization (enlightenment), is what is referred to by some traditions as “ego death” or “the death of the self.” In this state of complete annihilation of identity, one does not have identity in the usual sense; our identity is now with the presence of Being. In other words, our identity has shifted from the self-representation to Being. 

The Feeling of Identity is Only a Particular Structure of (and in) the Self

The primary function of the self-identity is self-recognition. Every normal individual has the capacity to recognize himself, to feel directly the unique and familiar sense of “I.” The word I usually refers to the total self, but there is also the feeling of “I-ness” which accompanies the self, and which is part of distinguishing the self from others. Generally speaking, except under certain circumstances, this “feeling of identity” is difficult to discriminate. As we have mentioned, it is most easily delineated as a specific feeling when it is temporarily lost or threatened. In such circumstances we can recognize it as a psychic structure, and perceive that although it is usually an inseparable part of the self, this feeling of identity is only a particular structure of (and in) the self. The work of spiritual development can bring to awareness this quality of identity, since such work tends to penetrate and reveal the various structures of the self. 

The View that the Individuated Self is Defined by Boundaries and Center

The self-identity functions not only as one’s sense of identity but also as the center of the self, especially, as we have seen, in relation to perception, initiative, action, creativity, orientation, and centeredness in oneself in general. The sense of centeredness is also closely related to the feeling of identity. In our view, then, the individuated self is defined by boundaries and center, corresponding to the two structures conceptualized by Mahler, entity and identity, respectively. In terms of personal experience, we experience ourselves as having both boundaries and a center. The boundaries differentiate and separate us from the rest of the environment, and provide us with the sense of being an entity. The center is a locus or source of action, which we feel as a sense of enduring identity; it gives us the sense of inner balance and orientation.

According to Mahler, self-boundaries develop in relation to the external body image, and self-identity develops in relation to the inner sensations of the body. We can imagine these structures of the self in spatial terms, where boundaries form a shape with external contours, and the identity is a center inside this form. The image that comes to mind is a sphere (or any solid) with boundaries and a center. The sense of entity corresponds to the external form of the sphere, its surface, and the sense of identity corresponds to the center of the sphere. 

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