The problem with the self: who do you think you are?

In every office I have ever had, where I was allowed to, I have hung a picture similar to the one above. This photograph was taken by Uwe Kils on one of her trips to the Antarctic. I wanted to post the actual image I have but though I have purchased many copies of it in varies sizes over the years, I have no idea who took the picture and on my blog we cite our sources.

I have this image on the wall because invariably in the course of treatment with all my patients a discussion about the Self takes place. Either they ask about the image or I point it out as a beginning to a discussion very much like I am about to write here. The information I am about to share will be important, if not pivotal, in understated much of what I yammer about here. I know I probably should have posted this one right after my introduction but things happen and I got distracted. I am posting it now as the next piece I intend to post will be on racism and I think a decent understanding of what forces are at work in the process of racism is necessary.

enough about the why, here is the meat of the matter…

Think about you for a minute. Seriously, close your eyes and think not about who you are (that’s a later post) but what you are. What makes you, well, you?

Most people I ask this question will say something along the lines of I’m a body and a mind. Not bad but not a complete answer, is it?

Let’s start with the easier of the two, the body. Your body is made up of trillions of cells clumped together more or less by type. These clumps perform specific functions and the totality of those functions is what makes you alive. I know it’s simplistic but for our purposes it is good enough. To organize more or less in a hierarchical manner, you have cells and organs and systems. These systems work independently to perform specific functions such as digestion and movement, but they also work together to facilitate the specific function.

For example the kidneys filter toxin out of your blood and create urine which is stored in the bladder and eliminated (through a process called voiding) from the body via the urethra. The kidneys need access to the blood in order to facilitate that function so they are connected to the circulatory system, which is the heart and blood vessels.

Still with me? Main point here is the body is made up of parts inside of parts which are connected to parts which then in turn do stuff.

What about your mind? If your body is made up of interconnected parts, doesn’t it stand to reason your mind is as well?

As it turns out that is exactly how it works and what the iceberg picture above symbolizes. The mind (I know it’s a poor choice of words but I’m trying to be extremely simplistic) is made up of two main parts: the Conscious (or Ego) and the Unconscious (or Psyche). The part of the iceberg in the image which is above water is the Ego and the part which is below is the Psyche. The water line in this image would symbolizes the threshold of consciousness and the water itself symbolizes the unconscious, specifically the collective unconscious but more on that in a bit.

Notice the size comparison between the two parts. The psyche is significantly larger than the ego, yet by and large the ego is the part that believes it to be in charge. To go back to our body comparison within your digestive system (collectively known as the gut) you have the large and the small intestine. This is where the primary part of digestion takes place, but not by your body. Within the gut is trillions upon trillions of bacteria and fungi and viruses and other stuff that by and large are independent life forms that live within the constraints of your digestive system. Some estimates are that for every one cell which comprises your body you have ten cells of bacteria in your gut. So, like the ratio between conscious and unconscious (1 to 10) you have a body cell to bacteria ratio (1 to 10) of roughly equal proportion.

That means literally what you think of as you is a groups of cells which are overwhelmingly not you.

If you are still following me the rest of this should be fairly easy to accept.

Your unconscious (which is the overwhelming majority of who and maybe what you are) is made of different parts. The upper part, closest to the threshold of consciousness, is the Shadow. The shadow is mostly unconscious but will occasionally break the surface into conscious awareness both with and without direct or conscious effort. I will get into what is in this part later but just know for now this layer too is broken down into layers from the personal (your shadow) to the collective (familial and cultural and so forth).

The next layers are a little more difficult to quantify as they don’t necessarily stay in in place in the stack. For the most part the anima/animus are below the shadow but they don’t stay below the shadow. On occasion and under the right circumstances the anima/animus will move above the shadow and actually lead you to your shadow material. Sort of like an unconscious tour guide.

The anima/animus is the unconscious archetype of femininity and masculinity. Which one you have depends on your conscious reality–if you are consciously male you have an anima, an unconscious female archetype. If you are consciously female you have an unconscious masculine archetype, an animus.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to state what may be already obvious; psychologically speaking constructs are by and large misogynistically identified. Before you go biting my head off in the comments section keep in mind we are discussing symbols here and not people and symbols have no agenda other than to represent an idea. There are male and female parts to humanity, one is conscious and one is unconscious and they are opposites.

Below the anima/animus there are the archetypes. Archetypes I think are easiest to understand as the most perfect example of a thing or idea. So much so that all other versions of that thing are compared to, if not identified by the comparison to, that archetypal thing. So the archetypal drinking glass would be so perfectly representative of a drinking glass that all other drinking glasses would be compared to it.

The unconscious is also where construct such as instincts and emotions originate from. The unconscious is also the repository of memory and because at the deeper levels all of the unconscious is connected in the collective all humans have at sone deep level access too the memories of everyone. The upper layers of the collective being the familial and the cultural unconscious and because accessing the deep unconscious is exceptionally difficult, most of us never get access beyond the cultural unconscious.

Like the iceberg which is controlled by the subsurface part, humans behaviors are controlled by the unconscious. Your unconscious directs you to do this or that and your conscious/ego rationalized (comes up with reasons or excuses) why.

The things in your unconscious, as many a researcher (like Jung) has discovered are alive and active. Interacting with each other and with consciousness constantly. Your unconscious is more like a series of swirling connected pools than a static set of layers but hopefully you can forgive my simplistic explanation.

See it is pretty simple.

3 responses to “The problem with the self: who do you think you are?”

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