The character Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s ironically titled great poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” personifies the painful plight of people who are unable to connect with their authentic self. Contemplating “a hundred indecisions,” Prufrock saw the moment of his greatness flicker: he “lingered in the chambers of the sea” and drowned in his self-doubt.
Prufrock lived in the shadow of his self, measuring out his life “with coffee spoons.” What then is this self—or Self—that supposedly rescues us from a life half-lived? We catch glimpses of it when our mind clears and life feels like silk upon our skin. Yet it’s not always easy to describe this core or essence that makes us feel at home in our body and in the world. So let’s heed Prufrock’s summons (though not his fate): “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.”
We can note, for starters, that the role of the self tends to be overlooked in mental health treatments. Writing recently in The New York Times Magazine, Linda Logan describes her treatments when hospitalized several times over a period of many years for a debilitating mood disorder: “Everything was scrutinized except the transformation of my self and my experience of its loss.” If anything, she writes, “it seems that psychiatry is moving away from a model in which the self could be discussed. For many psychiatrists, mental disorders are medical problems to be treated with medications, and a patient’s crisis of self is not very likely to come up in a 15-minute session with a psychopharmacologist.”
The self is, as philosopher Allan Bloom put it, “the mysterious, free, unlimited center of our being.” For science, the self is mysterious indeed, an annoying phantom or ghost that won’t sit still under a microscope. No single brain structure embodies the self. Neuroscience sees the self, like the mind, as a mental neurological map comprising substance, function, and activity through which we identify ourselves as a single organism.
For our purposes, the precise nature of the self is not the main concern. What really matters is our experience of being that self. Is the experience pleasant or unpleasant? To what degree does that experience help us in regulating our emotions and behaviors? As we connect more with this self, we feel more pleasure in the simple fact of our existence.
How can we establish a good relationship with our self? Many methods are known to be helpful, including techniques for stress reduction and relaxation as well as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, self-study, and psychotherapy. My method of psychotherapy reveals how the self gets buried under mental and emotional junk. Our psyche is cluttered with painful emotional attachments and memories that go back to childhood.
Psychological knowledge, as it applies specifically to us, helps us to shake off the hurts, regrets, sorrows, bitterness, and passivity that we carry from our past. What does this self-knowledge tell us? It reveals, for starters, our inner willingness to experience ourselves through unresolved negative emotions such as inner passivity and inner aggression. An understanding of inner passivity enables us to see how we have allowed inner aggression (from our inner critic) to dominate our mental and emotional life. The conflict between our inner aggression and inner passivity has blocked us from establishing a mental and emotional foundation in the harmonious, confident self. (Read, “Our Messy Mix of Aggression and Passivity”.) We also realize that, unwittingly, we have been choosing to experience ourselves and the world through old memories and attachments associated with feeling deprived, refused, controlled, criticized, and rejected.
The self is not self-centeredness, of course. Many of us, like children who are naturally self-centered, put our own existence at the center of the world. The world spins, it feels, around us. We smuggle our “I” into just about every experience and situation, and take our subjective impressions as the sole yardstick of reality. The unconscious feeling is, “Only by putting the accent on myself can I protect myself from being a lesser or a worthless person or even a non-entity.” We put this accent on ourselves because, deeper down, our connection with our self is weak. In this weakness, we feel the need to produce an artificial sense of self, a false self that happens to be dependent on external validation and materialistic trappings.
As mentioned, the major conflict in our psyche takes place between inner aggression and inner passivity. Inner aggression in the form of the inner critic pounces with mockery and sarcasm at any opportunity to harass, mock, belittle, or even terrorize us. On the receiving end of this assault, our unconscious ego fails to stand up for our rights. It collapses into defensiveness, passivity, and hopelessness, causing our self-esteem to plunge, producing anxiety and depression. This is why, in desperate counter-measure against our belittling inner critic, we’re so disposed to vanity and are suckers for flattery, compliments, and illusions of value.
When the conflict between inner aggression and inner passivity is active or unresolved, we tend to identify with one side or the other of the conflict. Our psyche generates negative emotions from the conflict, and our self is buried in the turmoil. We can resolve the conflict when, through insight, we expose it, understand its irrationality, and begin to step back from it. Our self emerges through this process of inner liberation.
Through the self, we experience a deep trust in our goodness and value. We manage to avoid being triggered by situations that in the past would have sent us tumbling painfully into withdrawal, bitterness, anger, and self-defeating behaviors. Our self, rich in emotional connection to our intrinsic value and goodness, banishes loneliness and depression. Rid of self-centeredness, we experience empathy and compassion.
We can now see others in their own light, without judgment, without projecting our issues on to them. We’re less likely to misinterpret the intentions of others. We don’t identify with the neurotic suffering of others. Guilt, shame, and fearfulness have largely departed. Even when the world seems to be having a panic attack, our self maintains our courage and upholds our integrity.
In this process of self-development, we also create an abode of privacy and inner freedom that can’t be compromised by government spying and the marketing intrusions of advanced surveillance and tracking technologies. The self establishes an inner democracy of peace and harmony, and it’s thereby the great champion of democracy everywhere.
At a more advanced stage of our development, our self can become, paradoxically, no-self. Existence acquires a vaporous softness, and we’re not afraid to drift like fog in and out of emptiness and nothingness. We’re at home with the unknown because we’re so connected to the eternal now.
J. Alfred Prufrock, an archetype of suffering humankind, asked anxiously, “When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall . . . how should I begin . . . how should I presume?” This representative man, despite poetic flair, allowed life to defeat him. We know better. Through inner knowledge that liberates the self, life becomes the victory we once could only dream about.