The Citadel of Self
In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist of over
twenty years, I have come to recognize that most of the
problems I treat in my office stem from one simple
problem--self integrity. This is often referred to by other
names-self-esteem and self-image being the two most common.
In all walks of life, people take in messages about
themselves, starting at a very young age and continuing to death.
The messages are a mixture of goods, bad, and neutrals, but they,
en toto, form a composite version of personal reality, which we
call self. I call this representation an epiphenomenon; meaning,
the thing that emerges as the aggregate of every experience of
self garnered along the way.
The heart of our selves is what I call the citadel of self.
On the surface this is how we see ourselves, as precipitated from
the many experiences we glean from others, who directly or
indirectly contribute to our epiphenomenon. Just under this
persona is a collection of impulses, some coordinated, some
disjoint and colliding--not just with one another but with the
self-image on the surface, too. Just under that is the deep stuff,
as I like to call it. This is that aspect of self that we
experience when we wake up at three in the morning and we have yet
to move or even open an eye. Yet, we know we exist because we
observe our own consciousness. We are active just by being aware,
in this case probably without much thought. We know we exist
because we are self-aware, not just aware of things outside our skin.
At three in the morning there is little to distract us, so our
perception of the deep stuff is clearer. It is as if we are
observing the pilot light of consciousness itself. Think of this
region as the geographic center of identity.
The functioning of the last level seems to be automatic and is
the basis for our very existence. Without this basic energy of life,
no psychology is possible. The psychological problems I see in the
office involve the two top levels, which largely stem from our past, particularly early family experiences. It does not matter how
intact our very existence is, the layering of experience on top of
it is what sets up problems. Most of us lose sight of the deep stuff,
so we concentrate on the subjective conflicts and daily goings-ons
that cover it up. Its like sitting on the bottom of a deep pool
where it is serene, then looking up. On the surface there are
ripples and even waves as the wind plays on the water. Most people
are stuck looking at the waves and miss the serenity.
Interestingly, when we focus on the deep stuff, and just admire
if you will the fact that we exist, our attention is drawn away from
the more superficial annoyances and the conflicts, negative messages
and other information working on our self-esteems. It is not a matte
of distracting ourselves, as in "just think positive." This approach
is more about focusing on the basic, or primary experience of existing,
which has a very big effect on the subjective experience of self.
In a word, using this approach expands our feelings at deep levels,
which has the effect of vanquishing other more superficial feelings. Presumably the big feeling knocks out or at least modifies the little
One can do this kind of work in any deep, quiet state that allows
clear perception and thinking. Obviously, this lets out drug or
alcohol-induced experiences. One can sit quietly and just
"be with oneself," as Arthur Deikman suggested in The Observing Self.
Or, one can practice any number of meditation techniques, or even
hypnosis. The point is to quiet the chattering mind, thus allowing
awareness to settle. Once quieted, the mind tends to enjoy the
lack of perturbations, which all by itself feels good at deeper levels.
Not everyone can do this kind of self-esteem work. I think of
ADHD types or anyone sufficiently internally stimulated or anyone who
cannot allow their attention to come to rest. This approach is not
For more on how to repair a crummy self-image, read my ebook,
entitled, The Four Powers of Self-Esteem.