Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The "True Self" as Denial

Ever heard or read psychologists babbling on about your true or inner self? That their patients are ignoring, betraying, denying or suppressing by conforming to sick social norms or denying the traumas of their past? Ever wondered what the therapists were talking about? Especially since they never really describe it, but throw it out as a phrase, which they hope their readers will interpret in a some useful way?

Here's what it meant. Psychoanalysis started out amongst the rich middle-classes of Europe and the USA. Often but not always Jewish upper-middle classes. It was essential for the patient to believe that the analyst "got" them and their background, that they knew what it was like to have grown up and live in a Jewish family. Later on, that would extend to being gay or lesbian. An analyst couldn't just say "Mrs Cabot, you're another one of those Upper West Side closet lesbians, aren't you?". No. He would have to signal that he "got it" without actually naming it. "It's very difficult when you have to hide your real self from everyone, isn't it Mrs Cabot? You can feel safe here, and maybe gradually your real self can express itself." Or something along those lines. 

They wrote books and papers about it and used the phrase, knowing that the others who knew would get the reference and it wouldn't matter about the practitioners who didn't get it, because they were probably dealing with goyishe straights who didn't have anything to hide or an exotic family background and so didn't have real selves. The phrase was code for "I get you and your circumstances, I get what you're afraid to say and why, and I'm not going to judge".

I've heard people from highly specific backgrounds say what a relief it was when they finally met someone who "knew who they were" - that is, who understood in practical and cultural terms what it is to be e.g the Western educated son of a tribal chief in Malawi. A European can't know what it is to be a middle-class, graduate of (say) engineering and an Arab male in Saudi Arabia - from what I've read about that artificial situation, you would have to be one too. But if you're from a mainstream background, there isn't anything special anyone needs to know about you.

The world changes and language changes with it. The Upper West Side Lesbians are Out and Proud, and while being Jewish is just as problematical as it always was, therapists can advertise as specialising in Jewish clients. There's no need to allude to anything any more. Often when a therapist uses the phrase to talk about patients who won't "let anyone near their true selves", it means "I know Daddy diddled her, Mommy ignored him/her or he/she wouldn't be here, but will they freaking admit it?" It means they aren't co-operating with the therapist. If a girl says she doesn't know who her boyfriend is, it means he's not showing her what she wants, and she has to hustle off to find the husband / long term partner. 

And in the snake-oil world of self-help literature "real you" means some "better you" hiding from the cruel outside world behind a mask of fake manners and adaptive but crass behaviour. The better person you could be: someone someone nice, smiley, sharey, funny, carey and smart. A responsible therapist would not use this idea. Therapy is about insight, and there's no guarantee that the client will like what they learn. Once the insight has been gained, it's up to the client to do what they want. Freud's remark that the purpose of therapy is to replace neurotic misery with ordinary unhappiness is still true. A few month's talking is never going to undo a lifetime of bad learning.

I'm an alcoholic: the real me is a klutz and a self-absorbed jerk. I've learned how to behave like a decent person, and it's kind of refreshing but it's freaking exhausting. At work I try to come across as an absent-minded old git - which takes very little effort as it's close to the truth. I can do decent behaviour for about thirty minutes tops, after which my patience runs out and I get bored. When I was younger I had the energy (fuelled by 100-octane leaded Neurosis) to keep up the pretence for days at a time, but not now. You would vastly prefer the fake me.

I don't believe that everyone is a beautiful soul underneath the damage of bad parenting, lousy schools and bullying employers. That's like saying that there's a Ferrari underneath every old banger on the road. There isn't. We get made by parents, teachers and peers and we make ourselves by how we react to how we get made. When the result is something we can't work with and hampers us in making proper progress through life, it's tempting to believe that we could do better if we were different - the "real me" that wouldn't be such a klutz all the time. What we mean is that we would live a better life if we were a different person, and that may be true, but that different person is no more true or false than the one we are now. 

In fact, the idea that we're not really the klutz we are, but really a wonderful person, may just be yet another form of denial, or at best a trick to persuade therapeutic clients to admit the truth about their Actual Klutz so they can begin to change their behaviour. There is no "true self", but there can be a "better you".

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