Sunday, June 25, 2017

The two types of Self

When you think of the Self, do you imagine it as something growing and changing, or consistent over a person's life? The definition of the Self is arguably one of the biggest differences between classical and postmodern psychology. Classical theories have their basis in the idea of a True Self, a fundamental unchanging part of a person that stays with them since birth. They may talk of upbringing, life circumstances, and social influence as things that change behavior, but they never change who you are underneath all of that. An artist may always be an artist, even in a world where they had no choice but to sell bread and raise children.

Postmodern theories of psychology look at the ways our behavior changes overtime, and instead see the Self as that which changes. Just as a person can change what they like, they can change who they are. A rambunctious teenager can change and become a stoic adult, and this isn't because they became any more or less in touch with a True Self, but because that Self changed, whether due to social pressure or just maturity.

These different perspectives change the ways clinicians approach their clients. A therapist who believes in the True Self may push a client to become more in touch with lost parts of themselves, while a more postmodern therapist might push a client to grow and change, exploring new hobbies and not remain attached to certain parts of their identity. I want to propose a third idea, which is that this theoretical rift is caused by two different definitions in the word Self.

In a sense, this debate is no different from nature versus nurture. While popular science shifts focus between the two, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Some of who we are is in our genes (brown eyes, wavy hair, a bit of a sweet tooth). The rest (taste in music, friends, hobbies) is influenced by how we are raised. So it can't be radical to suggest that between the True Self and the Changing Self, both as well as neither are true.

The two types of self I want to talk about are those I call the Momentary Self and the Lifetime Self. While there are parts of a person that never change (LS), it is impossible to ignore the ways in which parenting, culture, trauma, and major life events can change a person (MS). Difficulty comes with distinguishing which parts of a person are part of which Self.

Perhaps the most salient example of this in recent history is the debate on where sexuality comes from. While there is a major movement of people who believe that LGBT identities are inherent, there is a significant population that doesn't feel this to be the case. For example, people who have experienced traumas in early childhood may feel that those traumas made them gay or lesbian. The fact that they weren't "born this way" doesn't make their sexuality any less valid. Further, some feel their sexuality is fluid; not only has it changed, but it is likely to change again in the future. While the first population may have sexuality as part of their Lifetime Self, these people may see it as part of their Momentary Self. For a less controversial example, you can note the difference between someone who has been highly social since birth and someone who has taught themselves to be more social. Both may see extroversion as a trait they have, though they came about it in different ways.

It can require a lot of work and introspection to know which parts of yourself are Lifetime and which parts are Momentary. The assumption of identity being one or the other is dated; it may take more work, but sorting through the parts of Self can do a lot to settle things like self esteem and compassion. Trying to change something that's part of your Lifetime Self can be frustrating. Insisting that part of your Momentary Self is stuck like that forever can be stifling. Letting these parts speak for themselves can be freeing.

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