Why the self?

As I mentioned in the last post, it was my personal experience of healthism that motivated me to start a previous blog. When I now ask myself why I want to start a blog on the self, I find multiple motivations.

I decided to write a few initial posts where I talk about this. I’m admittedly not aware of all that motivates me, but I should at least be able to reveal some of the personal prejudices I bring to the subject matter. As it turned out, the idea of a “few initial posts” got a bit out of hand, and I now have 24 “introductory” posts. To help you locate what might be of interest, I’ve summarized those posts below.

Washing hands

The self-conscious blogger
Blogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort I find interesting. To blog – to participate in social media — is to be a self in a public space. This creates self-consciousness and stimulates reflection on self-presentation. It turns out what I needed to do to alleviate my self-conscious discomfort about blogging was to acknowledge that learning in public is the best way for me to learn new things. That doesn’t make it any more comfortable, but – I tell myself – it’s only a blog.

Learning in public
For me, writing is a way to pursue new interests and incorporate new knowledge – a type of active learning. As an ex-academic, however, am I willing to be seen learning in public — warts, insufficiencies, and all? After considerable initial hesitation, I’ve changed my mind about this.

Reality shock
When I was eleven, I experienced an altered reality — a gap in the world I had come to know and depend on. In retrospect I labeled this a reality shock. Perhaps this experience accounts for my later attraction to explanations of the world that acknowledge the precarious, contingent quality of reality.

Something I wrote a long time ago
In 1981 I published a book on anxiety. Something that old seems like a museum piece now, but it does remind me that my interest in the self, identity, and reality goes back a long ways.

Anxiety, mysticism, and reality
This is a chapter from that book on anxiety — a chapter motivated by my childhood reality shock. The loss of meaning — and the inability to locate oneself in the world — makes reality shock a transcendent experience. In this it resembles a mystical moment, one of those rare occurrences when meaning disappears, taking with it the sense of a separate and unique identity. In contrast, extreme anxiety, while it is also a profound emotion, usually leaves us sufficiently in touch with the world and ourselves to know that we are suffering.

The sociology of knowledge
After reading Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, I felt much more comfortable about living a life that failed to conform to social expectations. Which is to say, I felt more comfortable being myself. To quote Ian Hacking, I found social construction “a truly liberating idea.” Instead of accepting the allegation that “the problem is you,” I realized that – in some respects, at least — my so-called problems actually were not mine.

More thoughts from the past
An introduction to two more chapters (in the next two posts) from that 1981 book. I’m actually surprised to recognize in these writings an attitude that I still consider the essence of who I am.

The flexible self and the inflexible individual
This first chapter applies social construction to several topics — identity formation, the illusion of self-creation (the belief that who we are comes solely from within, not without), and the belief that identity persists over time. My point was that despite socially shared beliefs on what is considered acceptable and desirable, there is no one way to live that is correct, permanent, or guaranteed to be satisfying.

You are what you think
This second chapter is on the experience of consciousness, identity, and the illusion of individuality. We recombine diverse pieces of advice – most of it mass-mediated — on how to look, think, act, and feel. We then regard ourselves as original and unique. The benefit of rethinking our self-conception is that by identifying the ideas that tell us who we are, we can recognize them as externally imposed and question whether we want to accept or reject them.

The social and cultural history of the self
What can social history suggest about the development of consciousness and the self? How does the nature of society, in different historical eras, interact with, influence and/or determine the way people make sense of the world and of their individual lives within it? Does this historical path explain – or at least illuminate – our present day concept of the self? How has the sense of self changed in my own lifetime? Has it changed in a way I consider beneficial or is there a striking parallel between 20th century psychological theories and capitalist, corporate, and neoliberal interests? (I don’t answer all these questions in this post, BTW.)

Psychologists ask: What do we mean by “self”
At this point in writing posts, I was beginning to feel self-conscious about using the word “self.” It’s a slippery, overused, imprecise term. Mark Leary and June Price Tangney, co-editors of Handbook of Self and Identity, give five common usages among psychologists. They recommend using the word only when it involves self-reflection. Good advice for academic psychologists, perhaps, but a bit too limiting for me.

Philosophers ask: What do we mean by “self”
Long before psychology became a distinct discipline, philosophers gave considerable thought to matters of the self. Here I list eight possible answers to the question What is the self? They’re taken from Eric T. Olson’s article There is No Problem of the Self. (PDF) He recommends abandoning the term altogether, since philosophers can’t agree on what it means.

Can we think outside our culture: My Chinese horoscope
My Chinese horoscope was so accurate and incisive about so many things that I was forced to pay attention. It told me, for example, that I would never experience the type of motivation that tells people to follow one course of action rather than another when making life decisions. Unlike most people, I cannot simply summon up ambition, motivation, or a competitive spirit. I immediately and intuitively recognized this as true, yet I continue to resist believing it. I’ve been conditioned by a culture that places a high social value on ambition. I know the self is flexible, contingent, and socially constructed, but is that enough to provide me with an escape hatch from my culture?

Basic research on the self
In his description of the personal essay, Phillip Lopate speaks of its ability to provide “basic research on the self.” The previous post on my Chinese horoscope was a personal essay of sorts. I was unable to answer the questions I unearthed, but writing about them did clarify which one I should focus on.

My so-called writing life
My experience with writing got off to a bad start when my mother read my diary to the neighbors. Once away from home, I completely recovered. This post is a history of my relationship with writing. It probably contains more information about my personal life than you’ll find anywhere else in this blog.

How I connected with Buddhism
There is a great deal written on how the nature of the self has changed over the course of Western history. In a blog on the self, I didn’t want to neglect the Buddhist view that, actually, there is no self. This post includes the story of how the teachings of Tarthang Tulku fell off a bookshelf into my lap, plus an excerpt on competition from his book Skillful Means.

The philosophical value of a no-self perspective
In looking for a discussion of the Buddhist no-self perspective, I found the book Self, No Self?: Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions. Not being a student of philosophy, I found this rather heavy going at first. It made a very interesting point, though. When you assume, as Western philosophy does, that there is a self, you’re unlikely to ask a very important and fundamental question: What social/cultural purpose is served by assuming there is a self?

The joy of bibliographies
One of my graduate school professors, Derek J. de Solla Price, used to say that, starting with the bibliography of one journal article, you could work your way to all the important publications in a given field. I just happened to watch a lecture series by psychologist Mark Leary – unaware that his specialty was self and identity – and his bibliography opened up much more reading material than I’ll ever have time for.

Critical psychology – a new home?
Critical psychology believes mainstream psychology has some fundamental problems, including: the reduction of human mental life to isolated, mechanical parts; the conceptualization of the person as individualistic and independent of society; the refusal to consider the very quality that makes us human — our subjectivity — for fear of being considered less scientific than physics. Psychology has the potential to emancipate society from social inequality and injustice. Critical psychologists would like psychology to realize that potential. In critical psychology I feel I’ve found a new intellectual home.

Self-help as psychological healthism
I’m interested in self-help for the same reason I’m interested in healthism. As I once wrote: “Self-help is the psychiatric equivalent of healthism.” It’s an excessive preoccupation with one’s psychological self (as opposed to healthism’s preoccupation with physical health), encouraged by a proliferation of self-help literature, personal enhancement seminars, and tell-all TV shows. It is the foundation on which neoliberalism is built: Individuals are responsible for their problems (“the problem is you”). To my mind, what’s wrong with self-help (and with most of American psychology) is that its focus on the individual displaces the importance of the social community. In particular, a focus on the interior life of the individual ignores the importance of the socioeconomic circumstances in which we live.

Self-help from Norman Vincent Peale to the new Oprah
An excerpt from an essay on self-help that I found in New York Magazine. Boris Kachka writes mainly about how self-help has changed the publishing industry, but his analysis of how this relates to cultural history – the shift from pragmatism and self-reliance to being personally responsible for self-regulation – is spot on.

The history of self-help: Some books to read
I’ve wanted to delve into the history of self-help for years now, but somehow it didn’t seem like a suitable topic for my other blog. This post contains a bibliography of books I can confidently recommend and a few others that I’m not yet sure of.

Bibliography 1.0: Can I escape the judgment of psychology?
I went through my various lists of books – those I’ve recently read or browsed, others I’d like to read — and made a bibliography. It’s not particularly useful to anyone but me at this point, but it definitely got me thinking. It brought up questions I’ve discussed in earlier posts here, especially in connection with my Chinese horoscope. Is it really OK simply to indulge my interests rather than pursue and accomplish a goal? How did I end up living in an era where psychologists get to decide what it means to live a good life? This is what I want to understand. I’m sure some of these books will help.

And in conclusion …
When I decided to write some introductory posts that explained my personal interest in the subject matter of this blog, I had no idea I would write this many. This is the last “introductory” post. I discuss discovering a certain persistence of identity that I hadn’t anticipated, parallels between critical psychology and the social determinants of health, and my alternate title for this blog – My blog is my biome.


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