What is self?


In Gestalt therapy, the “self” is understood as a continuously evolving and changing organism.  (I know, weird word for what is essentially the “person”). Jim Kepner writes, “ Gestalt therapy views the self not as a thing, a static structure, but as a fluid process. The self is not a frozen set of characteristics (‘I am this and only this.’)”

This idea alone, the self not being static, is quite revolutionary to some people. How often do you say, “I am always . . . ,” or “I never …” and honestly believe you are always/never this way? Do you describe yourself in terms so absolute as to deny the possibility of something other than what you understand yourself to be? What would it be like to consider the opposite of what you think you are or never are?

Most of us also perceive the self as what is in the mind or brain, and not what is being bodily experienced. In Gestalt therapy, body and mind are one. Acknowledging both bodily and mental processes leads to a richer, more complete experience of life. By contrast, a disowning of the body diminishes existence and is often experienced by feelings of fragmentation and  distress. And yet in our Western culture we don’t easily acknowledge that body and mind are interconnected.

The healthy individual is varied and flexible in his or her abilities and qualities, depending on the circumstances of the environment. There is no self without the context of the environment; and how we act depends largely on what is going on around us. Environment is a general term that includes people, places, situations, etc. Therefore, how we behave depends on how we make contact with the environment in order to meet our needs.

Contact is necessary for growth and survival. We assimilate experiences that are useful for growth and change, and reject what cannot be assimilated. In contacting, assimilating and growing, we sometimes encounter problems with the environment. For example, when a child’s need for love and affection is rejected or punished.

When a child is repeatedly exposed to criticism, discouragement, cruelty, or neglect, he or she learns to “disown” certain aspects of the self. In other words, the person denies his or her natural curiosity, want for love, capacity for vulnerability, or sexual feelings. This takes place in both the bodily and mental aspects of the self.

Even individuals who have not been subject to abuse, have disowned aspects of themselves. It happens when a person’s vulnerability is not met with compassion and understanding. This invariably happens to all of us. It is part of being human. The individual takes this rebuff and rejection, and puts it out of sight and mind. She or he ignores the feelings and thoughts, pretending that these qualities are not part of the self. The body is “held” or armored to protect its vulnerabilities. She or he learns not to talk or think about certain subjects.

Individuals can put these uncomfortable emotions, thoughts and feelings away, so to speak, but they continue nonetheless, well below the surface of consciousness. Often, non-verbal body language gives expression to the turmoil within.

Kepner again, makes an excellent example of this by using a house as metaphor for self. You don’t want a particular room in your house, but you cannot get rid of it, because it is integral to the structure of the house. So you board it up and pretend it isn’t part of the house.

Those little traumas of not being supported in our environments are what lead up to us boarding off a room in the house of “self.” Only through careful exploration of the boarded up room, can we hope to come to understand, and love, and own our full selves.

As a Gestalt therapist, I work with you to gently uncover the disowned aspects of oneself. As you are able to integrate all aspects of yourself, you begin to have a greater self-awareness and more choice about how to act so that your needs are met.

If you would like to explore your “self,” give me a call. Melanie Somerville • 512-593-0583 • melaniesomerville.atx@gmail.com

Peace, friends.

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