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The Experience of Self

I do not believe that the best route to understanding what we mean by the ‘self’ is through introspection. The ‘discoveries’ that can be made through attending carefully, even sceptically, to one’s own psychological processes tell us very little about what it is to be human (though they may tell us a great deal about what it’s like to be human). Several philosophers – some of them extremely influential – have fallen to the temptation to draw sweeping conclusions about the nature of the self from their closeted ruminations over what went on inside them (cogito ergo sum, etc.), with consequences that have been profoundly misleading.

As I have already suggested, the view from the self-as-centre is subject to several kinds of limitation and distortion in both time and space. The trouble is, it is a perspective that is hard to challenge because it is so compelling and appeals so readily to the prejudices we all tend to share as the result of our singular embodiment.

For when we look inside ourselves, we all tend to ‘discover’ the same kinds of phenomena: feelings, thoughts, perceptions, intentions. From these we are almost bound to conclude that, as individuals, we harbour systems of sensation, emotion, cognition and will which, in their various combinations, will be sufficient to explain our ‘behaviour’.

Traditional approaches to psychotherapy have done nothing to diminish this picture – and in fact a great deal to strengthen it. And yet it is from the experience of trying to help people in distress that the inadequacy of the conventional approach has been borne in on me. It is not that conventional psychotherapy does not investigate and illumine the reasons for someone’s distress often quite convincingly; indeed it is the great privilege of being able to talk to people at length, and without the usual kinds of threat which result in defensive and deceiving communication, which makes psychotherapy as a situation a most revealing medium of research. It is, rather, the widespread and well documented inability of therapy to put right the troubles it uncovers that points us away from our received wisdom about what makes people tick.

For what becomes painfully obvious as people struggle with their distress is that the simple biological and psychological resources with which they came into the world are almost entirely incapable of making any significant difference to their predicament. It is not, furthermore, just that their troubles are due to environmental causes beyond their control (though it is extraordinary that this glaringly obvious circumstance is so often ignored by conventional therapies) but that the very constitution of their ‘selves’ is social rather than individual. A great part of what ‘I’ am lies outside and beyond ‘me’, and is therefore not amenable to the operation of my ‘will’.

Our bodies impart to us an overwhelming impression of ‘inside’ because, of course, everything we experience and do is mediated by the biological equipment which goes to make up our individual existence, and of which only we ourselves are directly aware. And yet the causes of what we experience and do are equally overwhelmingly outside ourselves. No only are all the abilities we have – from language to the most trivial (or sophisticated) social skill – acquired from outside, but their effective performance depends a) upon our having available to us the power to act, and b) upon there being a social context to receive our actions and render them intelligible. Almost everything that I experience as part of ‘me’ is dependent for its acquisition, meaning and performance on us.

I am at least as much a social as a biological construction.

What might this mean for our conventional psychological understandings?


More than anything else it is our singular embodiment which makes individuals of us. Although we share our physical construction, in all essentials, with every other member of the species, each of us is encapsulated in a skin which marks us off from the rest, and only we know for sure what is going on inside that skin (or so it seems). And what tells us what is going on is our feelings.

Even here, of course, we depend in all sorts of ways on the social context in order to recognize and make sense of our feelings, and their meaning and communication rely utterly on the mysterious faculties of sympathy and empathy, without which human relationship and interaction would be impossible. When we cease to resonate in sympathy with someone else’s pain, when, for whatever reason, we fail utterly to make the intuitive leap which places us empathetically in someone else’s shoes, we become frighteningly diminished as human beings. The genocidal mob lives on the lowest moral plane imaginable.

Our singular embodiment places a kind of paradox at the very centre of our existence. On the one hand, feelings, and our unique awareness of them, are where our individual lives are lived. On the other, it is experience of our feelings which forms the very basis of the possibility of putting ourselves in the place of ‘the other’. It is the experience of pain and pleasure (and anxiety and dread, anticipation, excitement and joy, and so on...) which makes my life important to me, which shapes and defines my mortality. But it is also the recognition that I share these feelings with all those others who are built the same way that extends the meaning of my existence beyond myself and makes me first and foremost a moral creature.

It is all too easy to get derailed from our moral life as social beings into the anxiety-driven existence of one of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘individuals’, fixedly preoccupied with their own bodily sensations of pain and pleasure, lack and satisfaction. Modern consumerism encourages the belief that this is the ‘normal’ way to be. Insofar as it succeeds, it will destroy not only society, but life itself.

I hope it is apparent that by making our feelings, the sensations of our singular embodiment, the basis of our moral and social existence I am in no way trying to detract from their importance to us as individuals. I am not, for example, suggesting that we should submerge our personal interest in some abstract notion of the greater good, that we sacrifice the felt present for a notional future. What I am trying to say is that it is our awareness of (most importantly) our own pain which puts before us the pain of others and which behoves us, with them, to make a better (less painful) world. It is precisely because feelings are where life is lived that we should strive to construct societies that make life tolerable for all, not just some of us.

It is our feelings – the sense conveyed to us of our relations with the world around us – which, so to speak, hook us into the networks of interest by means of which power is conducted. At the most primitive level, we are attracted and repelled in various degrees by the sensations which our dealings with the world give rise to, and it is through this process that we learn what appears to be in our interest, and what not.

The essential crudeness of this process is of course quickly overlaid by the almost infinite variety of refinements which a social system consisting of creatures as complex as ourselves will bring forth. In his Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault1 sets out a brilliant analysis of the way in which European powers have learned over the past few centuries to eschew control of the citizenry by violence and terror in favour of the much more subtle (and effective) use of a kind of discipline (through examination, observation and record-keeping) which eventually becomes internalized by individuals themselves. Christopher Lasch makes similar points in his analysis of the ‘tutelary complex’2 that turns our attention inward in a kind of anxious self-monitoring, keeping us perpetually comparing our ‘selves’ with others.

Discipline and Seduction

The solicitations of seduction have not replaced, but exist alongside a technology of discipline which still broadly controls the functioning of the societal apparatus. Indeed there is often a curious, contradictory fusion of the two which leaves many of us in a state of anxious bewilderment.

The principal means of discipline is the threat to livelihood. Endless, often contrived change, authoritarian hierarchies of 'management', the control of potential sources of social critique (contractual gagging, punishment of 'whistle-blowers', etc.), all exist against a pervasive background of job insecurity. Lay-offs, redundancies, pay cuts, people being forced to apply for their own jobs: the imminence of personal catastrophe has become a leading feature of daily living.

The harsher the reality of the world imposed on people, the more blandly seductive the concepts with which we are induced to frame our experience. 'Enjoyment' becomes the key, publicly endorsed criterion of a worthwhile life, behind which, however, reigns a terror of insecurity. An almost hysterical mediatized incitement to self-indulgence runs alongside a pitiless dismantlement of the social support systems of the poor, weak and disadvantaged; the public world is progressively impoverished while the private imagination is fed with ever more 'exciting' promises of sensual enrichment.

High capitalist consumerism goes one stage further (though not more subtle): rather than playing on the pains and anxieties which punishment and discipline arouse, the individual becomes manipulable through the provision of opportunities for untrammelled pleasure. What one might call the deregulation of addictive self-indulgence that has taken place in recent years appeals directly to the most basic bodily sensations of pleasure (pornographic sex, drugs, artificially enhanced foods, etc.). This, of course, engages the individual’s interests in the furtherance of a system which, in the longer (economic) term, benefits only a very small proportion of the population.

There is little reason to suppose that power cannot be infinitely resourceful in inventing ways of engaging people’s interests through the manipulation of their feelings, but there is of course far more to this process than the direct stimulation of pleasure and pain. The control of meaning (ideological power) forms an immense part of the apparatus of social control, and, to be in a position to analyze some of its procedures and effects (which will be the subject of later pages), we need to consider some further aspects of the composition of ‘selves’.

The role of commentary

A great part of what we take to be characteristically human achievements – in particular thinking and willing – is intimately bound up with our ability to use language.

Our propensity for reflecting about ourselves, for weighing and assessing the evidence of our senses, for comparing, anticipating and judging, all depend on our learning to use words. The use of language permits us to extend our society, materially and conceptually, illimitably further than any other group of animals could conceivably achieve, and indeed it is essentially our linguistic ability which defines our intelligence. In our everyday sense of ourselves, however, we often overlook the extent to which what we take to be individual, interior aspects of our personal ‘psychology’ are in fact extremely fallible social constructions, culturally acquired via the medium of language.

For what we take to be causal process of thought, decision and will are frequently little more than a kind of running commentary that accompanies our actions. As we grow up we learn to attach words to our activities that, if we’re not almost superhumanly attentive, come in our understanding to replace the activities themselves. An awareness that we are pushed and pulled by, quite literally, the force of circumstances gives way (if indeed it was ever perceptibly developed) to a conviction that our commentary on these events actually gives rise to them. As the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vigotsky argued so powerfully3, the child’s thought is not somehow simply internally generated, but is acquired from the social context. Thinking is self-talk which has become silent.

Many of the characteristics that we tend to regard as entirely 'psychological' are acquired in exactly the same way as thought and language - that is to say, from outside. The most significant case in point is probably 'self-confidence', the crumbling of which is so often at the root of the kind of personal distress which can be 'diagnosed' by the experts as 'neurotic'.

Confidence in themselves is acquired by children as they grow up through the confidence powerful others place in them. Just as children learn to think by hearing what others say to and about them, so they learn to assess themselves according to how they are actually treated. What feels like an entirely internal faculty, a kind of moral property which ought to be under the individual's personal control, is thus a 'wired-in' characteristic which can no more be changed at will than can the language we speak.

Some approaches to therapy recognize this at least implicitly when they accord a crucial role to the 'therapeutic relationship' itself in, for example, instilling confidence in the patient through the therapist's 'unconditional positive regard'. Though there is doubtless some truth in the idea of the 'corrective emotional experience', the therapist's role in his or her patients' lives is (even in the bizarre practice of 're-parenting') far less powerful than the role of actual parents. Therapeutic influence of this kind typically lasts no longer than the therapy itself.

In psychotherapy and counselling as much as or perhaps even more than in everyday life, we take it as of the first importance to establish what we see as the interior validity of people's utterances, acts and intentions. We feel a strong need, that is, to establish the purity or otherwise of their 'motives'.

In therapy, for example, the concept of 'insight' is crucial: in order to be able to act in accordance with therapeutic prescription, it is felt, the individual must be able to see into the internal processes which cause resistance or compliance, for it is these which provide the motivation for his or her overt conduct. Again, some humanistic psychologies, borrowing from existentialism, lay great emphasis on 'authenticity' as a prerequisite for morally sound and 'healthy' conduct: there needs to be, that is to say, a kind of harmony between inner intentions and the outer expression of them.

In everyday social life the transparency and sincerity of what others say and do is considered an important factor in establishing their trustworthiness - to the extent that in the sphere of public life, politicians (and the media circuses that attend them) will place more importance on, for example, the perceived 'sincerity' of their utterances than on the actual policies they advocate and institute.

In these instances we are again, I believe, confusing commentary with the existence of an interior 'psychological' world which, we feel, needs to be accessed therapeutically and inspected morally if we are to remain healthy, adjusted and properly disciplined citizens.

There is, however, no such interior moral space, and in my view the concepts which are thought to arise from it can be better accounted for by considering the relations between, on the one hand, what we tell ourselves (i.e. what I have called 'commentary'), and, on the other, what we do, what we feel, what we tell others, and what can be established objectively. The following table attempts to clarify this view:-

  accords with:-  
my actions what I feel my account to others the best available account Result
My commentary YES  Insight
YES YES  Sincerity
YES YES  Authenticity
YES NO  Deception
NO NO  Self-deception

If, therefore, my commentary - what I tell myself - accords with what can be objectively established (what I have called the 'best available account'), I can be said to have insight. If my commentary accords with what I feel and with what I tell others, I can be said to be sincere. And so on.

Mystifications of Interiority

Much of what psychoanalysis takes to indicate a realm of 'unconscious motivation', and, more importantly perhaps, many of the ways in which we deceive ourselves and cause others pain by referring to pure motives for bad actions, can be demystified by the use of the kind of conceptual schema outlined here.

Take for example the parent who deserts his or her family. The harassed father, say, who takes off in early middle age with his secretary may have few qualms about his wife's predicament because he has come to loathe her, but he will be able to overlook the devastation his children feel at being left (not so different from, indeed perhaps much more intense than hers) by telling himself he 'still loves' them. 'Love', from his perspective, is an internal, somehow self-validating state expected to sustain his children in their loss. For them, however, 'love' is their experience of his embodied presence and support, the withdrawal of which inevitably indicates love's absence. What he tells himself accords neither with his actions nor, almost certainly, with what he feels (most likely an all-consuming - and sadly all-too-temporary - passion for his secretary).

I hope it is clear that this is not meant as a moralistic injunction against divorce. Life is often almost unbearably difficult. But fooling each other and being ourselves fooled about the difficulties only serves, in my view, to compound them.

I do not want to claim that this schema is absolutely accurate or logically watertight - it is intended more as a model - but it does do away with the necessity for postulating complex and ultimately mysterious internal moral and psychological entities. In banishing a literally understood interior space, it reinstates the importance of the external world we all occupy. It downgrades psychology and upgrades sociality. Perhaps the most important effect of this is to shift our judgement of the validity or otherwise of what people say and do from unanalysable, supposedly interior moral impulses to an essentially exterior, social world of language and action. A world which is through and through permeable to the operations of power and understandable only in relation to them.

I do not mean to suggest by any of what I have said so far that the embodied individual is bereft of agency in any sense; what I do want to say is that what we take to be the individual, personal processes through which we understand and shape our worlds tend to be inflated by a sense of personal autonomy which is very largely illusory.

Much of what we take to be ‘cognitive processes’ consists in one form or another of commentary, or self-talk. Cognitive psychologists – especially the less sophisticated ones - often write as if decision-making processes, attitudes, beliefs and so on are independent, essentially rational ‘schemata’ existing somehow as causal agents in people’s brains, and that they can in principle be isolated and accessed (by, say, a ‘cognitive therapist’) and, where necessary, altered to give more satisfactory behavioural outcomes. Much of the procedure of identifying and altering such ‘cognitions’ takes place through the medium of language. In this way, it is felt that, at least in principle, an individual can tell you what, for instance, his or her ‘attitudes’ are (or at least that they can be inferred from his or her account), and that they can be altered through rational discussion. The most vociferous – and simple-minded - proponent of this kind of approach in the therapeutic world in recent times has been Albert Ellis, whose brain-child, ‘Rational-Emotive Therapy’, is widely practised.4

However, rather than being behaviour-causing schemata, localizable inside people’s heads and describable by them, ‘cognitions’ of this kind can only be understood as social constructions, distributed throughout a network which extends far beyond the individual who appears to host them. What we so often take to be an ‘attitude’, for example, is little more than the commentary individuals give to account to themselves (and/or others) for the way they conduct themselves in a particular circumstance. People do, of course, behave characteristically, but they do so for reasons which are far more complex than simple cognitivism allows.

People may or may not be aware of the ways in which their interests are ‘hooked’ by powerful influences in social space-time, but in almost all circumstances they will be ready to offer an account of what they are doing and why, and indeed to maintain a commentary to themselves on the significance of their actions. The accuracy of any such commentary – whether delivered by the individual him- or herself or by an independent observer – will depend upon the extent to which the social causation of the behaviour in question is transparent. And, given the complexity of social influence, very often it will not be. As we shall see later, the illusion that the individual in some sense owns, hosts or is responsible for conduct whose origins are in fact largely social is one which is frequently ideologically exploited by power as a means of obscuring its own machinations.

The illusion that the individual is the sole originator of his or her conduct is of course nowhere more compelling than to the individual him- or herself, and it is as much as anything the conviction with which people are ready to account (through commentary) for their conduct which gives rise to the whole notion of ‘cognitions’. For the most part, though, all I am aware of when I perform some action or other is the bodily processes which take place in me as I do so. I will probably have long forgotten that the names I give to these processes (‘I wanted to’, ‘I thought that’, ‘I intended to’, ‘I meant to’ , ‘I decided to’, etc., etc.), rather than describing some self-evident, causal, internal rationality, were acquired originally from the often tentative and puzzled efforts of others trying to read the significance of my infantile adjustments to a world getting to grips with me.

Commentary consists largely of a series of guesses about the meaning of my actions based for the most part on very scant evidence, but, because of the extremely limited perspective from the self-as-centre, it seems to the individual involved a fairly comprehensive account of his or her (embodied) experience.

The notion of ‘will’ is susceptible to very much the same kind of analysis.

'Will power'
I have tried before to challenge the notion of ‘will power’ in my writings (in particular The Origins of Unhappiness and How to Survive Without Psychotherapy with, as far as I can tell, results that demonstrate mainly how reluctant people are to abandon it. Let me first place the argument in context.

In saying that there is no such thing as ‘will power’, I am not suggesting that as individuals we are likely to find ourselves reluctantly compelled to act against our wishes by some inexorable alien force, and certainly not by a force of this kind which could in principle be understood and manipulated by some superior breed of scientific social engineers. This is the (Brave New World, Clockwork Orange) nightmare of those who take seriously the preposterous ambitions of scientistic psychologies such as behaviourism. Nor am I saying that the non-existence of will power furnishes us with a kind of permanent excuse for immoral or illegal conduct.

In essence I am making quite a limited and modest claim: that there is no internal, moral faculty innately resident inside human beings which can be called upon at times of crisis to deliver them from difficult or unwanted situations.

This is not the same as saying that there is no such thing as ‘will’, nor that we cannot speak legitimately of ‘free will’. Will is the availability of power to an individual to direct socially acquired influence back into the environment. How 'free' the will is depends upon the extent of powers available to the individual in social space-time.

For everyday purposes, of course, there can be no sensible objection to people talking about ‘will power’. It’s a useful, uncomplicated way of referring to the extent to which people can reasonably be expected to exercise the powers that are normally available to them. If I get fined for parking on the yellow lines I can scarcely invoke the non-existence of will power as a defence because the option of not parking on the yellow lines would (almost certainly) have been available to me.

The quite limited claim I am making is that when there is no power available to the individual from the social environment (either now or historically), there is no further, or ultimate source of power upon which he or she can be expected to call simply by virtue of being human. Disputes about ‘will power’ and whether or not someone should have applied it then become questions of whether or not he or she had access to the necessary powers to act in the particular circumstances.

Here again the view from the self-as-centre is very misleading. It is almost impossible when one does something with difficulty or an unusual amount of effort not to credit oneself with special, internal powers. Our view of ourselves is not as of a locus in social space through which power flows, but as an agent within which power originates. For when we act, all we are immediately aware of is the feelings that accompany the action, and if they are stressful, or if we find ourselves acting against the normal run of our inclinations in pursuit of some ‘higher’ goal, it is entirely natural that we attribute to ourselves some special power which seems to have an unusual moral cachet. In these circumstances, what we tend to do is sum up a highly complex social process in a simplified commentary which we quickly and mistakenly take to have a substantive reality of its own.

Please note here again that my account is not reductive in the sense that I am banishing morality to the realm of the ‘unscientific’ or somehow diminishing the freedom and dignity of humankind. What I am suggesting is that many of the phenomena we take to be indicative of individual autonomy and virtue are in fact analysable only in terms of social factors.

The illusion of autonomy

Psychological attributes which are conventionally taken to be aspects of our individuality – ‘cognitions’, ‘will’, etc. – are, then, principally illusions created by what I have called ‘commentary’. The processes which these words attempt to describe are in fact more accurately to be seen as being distributed within the social space-time in which the individual is embedded.

This view is one which may try the patience of even the best-disposed reader, since it appears to undermine some of our most cherished notions about the human spirit. For example, I remember one well-known and highly respected (also by me) psychologist reacting with dismay at my suggestion that, of themselves, ideas cannot have power. Social solidarity, the taking up of ideas and putting them into action, may well be powerful, but an idea on its own can ‘do’ nothing. I can see that, on the face of it, this appears (among other things) to rob us of the hope that oppressive power may be combated by the exercise of mind.

Again, I think, we are in cases like this misled by a kind of shorthand way of thinking into a conviction that metaphors we invent (e.g., a ‘powerful idea’) describe real entities. In everyday conversation it is perfectly reasonable to describe an idea to which, say, millions have come to subscribe as ‘powerful’. But when analytical accuracy becomes important, we need to be able to see that it is the fact that millions have taken it up that makes it powerful. If we fail to recognize this, we give up too much power to the public relations industry and the doctors of spin.

Power is a social acquisition, not an individual property. The isolated individual, uprooted from the social context, not only has no significant powers, but would be unrecognizable as a human being. The autonomy with which we credit ourselves is an illusion entirely dependent on the unreflective commentary which we generate from the self-as-centre, and which is reinforced by a host of interests to whose advantage it works.

Clinical neurology offers many examples of conditions in which words become catastrophically split from actions such that patients' utterances and beliefs about what they're doing may be entirely at odds with conduct which is nevertheless in itself far from chaotic, and directed towards perfectly coherent and (to others) comprehensible ends. For example, in his book Destcartes' Error (Papermac, 1996), Antonio Damasio uses evidence from the observation of brain-damaged patients to suggest that mind is the product of an organism, not just a brain, and organisms are located in and mediate environments. Brain, body and environment flow into and out of each other, and what we do is by no means simply the result of the deliberations of a rational conductor sitting somewhere inside us.

I think there are also clear enough intimations of this in ordinary experiences familiar to all of us. The foremost of these is in dreaming. The 'commentator' is often absent in dreams, and the sense commentary allows us in waking life of being somehow in charge, gives way to a mysterious world in which we are constantly surprised not only by the events which overtake us but also by our response to those events. It is often not clear which of the multiple characters in dreams is 'self' or 'other', and the identity - the feelings, intentions, even the sex - of the dreamer becomes extraordinarily fluid. The dreamer spectates rather than directs, reacts rather than commentates. What we dream is, after all, nothing but our 'own' ideas and images, and yet we are constanty surprised - sometimes even terrified - by them. In dreaming sleep the illusion of 'ownership' dies with the silencing of the commmentator, and dreamers are left to observe more or less passively the ways the world flows through them.

The illusoriness of autonomy becomes apparent in everyday waking life only when the customary relation between conduct and commentary breaks down, and nowhere is such breakdown more apparent than in the course of psychotherapy. Absolutely central to the experience of psychological distress for most sufferers is the awareness that their conduct bears painfully little relationship to their idea of themselves, their wishes and their striving. Their ‘cognition’ and their ‘will’, in other words, seem incapable of affecting what they do or how they feel.

It is extraordinary that theorists of psychotherapy have been able to make so little of this state of affairs, since, more clearly than anyone, therapists are confronted by phenomena which cry out for an analysis that could reconcile their apparent contradictions. It’s true, of course, that the notion of the Unconscious was elaborated precisely to account for the contrasts between people’s conscious accounts of their actions (their commentaries) and the actions themselves. However, all ‘the Unconscious’ does is shuffle the problems from one ‘part’ of the individual to another: the whole apparatus of commentary gets shoved wholesale and unmodified into an imaginary interior space even less intelligible than the one it started out in. This manoeuvre serves only to make matters more mysterious. Not only is the individual’s own commentary disqualified (perhaps rightly, perhaps not), but it is replaced by the commentary of the therapist who claims to be able to discern the ‘unconscious’ origins of conduct buried deep within.

Apart from this gambit, however, psychotherapy and counselling have done almost nothing to get to grips with the issue that stares them in the face, i.e. the disarticulation of commentary and conduct. Having (often correctly) uncovered the environmental causes of the patient’s predicament, all too often ‘therapy’ can manage little more than an appeal to the person’s non-existent autonomy to make the necessary changes (i.e. ‘accept responsibility’ for them: ‘only you can do it’, etc., etc.).5

What people who suffer psychological distress tend to become aware of is that no matter how much they want to change, no matter how hard they try, no matter what mental gymnastics they put themselves through, their experience of life stays much the same. This is so because there is no such thing as an autonomous individual. What powers we have are acquired from and distributed within our social context, some of them (the most powerful) at unreachable distances from us. The very meaning of our actions is not something that we can autonomously determine, but is made intelligible (or otherwise) by orders of culture (proximal as well as distal) over which we have virtually no control.

A person’s character is not something he or she can choose, or indeed alter at whim, since character is held in place historically and contextually by powers and influences which are almost entirely independent of personal influence.

However outrageous some may find this ‘deconstruction’ of personal autonomy, I take for my evidence the experience of those who have had to struggle with suffering. I suggest, furthermore, that sooner or later it is the experience of us all.

As long as our actions accord more or less satisfactorily with our wishes and our intentions - as long, that is to say, as commentary and conduct are articulated reasonably comfortably - we are likely to subscribe happily enough to the notion of personal autonomy. When, however, as happens not infrequently in most of our lives, we find what we are doing running counter to what we want, what we thought we believed, and possibly even our best efforts, we begin to catch a glimpse of how human conduct really comes about. Our mistake at such times is to attribute our difficulties to some kind of aberration such as 'mental disorder'. We invoke 'circumstances beyond our control' only when we want to dissociate ourselves from the results of our actions; the point, rather, is that circumstances are always beyond our control, but most of the time not felt (or said by us) to be.

The extent to which you can alter your ‘self’ will depend upon the powers available to you to alter your world. ‘Therapy’ may help someone to redeploy more effectively than before what powers and resources are available to him or her (which explains the oft-cited research finding that young, attractive, verbal, intelligent and successful people gain most from psychotherapy). Therapy may also provide the person with much needed support and solidarity at times of great trouble. Beyond these entirely ‘ordinary’ (in Peter Lomas’s sense6) services, however, there is no magic about therapy, and no reason to justify its becoming a professionalized form of ‘treatment’.

‘Selves’ are not individual, autonomous constructions, but form at the intersection of social influences themselves part of a vastly complex system. It is not that ‘selves’ cannot or do not change; it is simply that significant change comes about as the result of shifts in the pattern of social influence, not because of the individual's personal wishes or efforts.

1. Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish. Penguin Books.
2. Lasch, Christopher. 1985. The Minimal Self. Picador.
3. Vigotsky, Lev.1962. Thought and Language. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
4. An excellent critique of the limitations of cognitivism in therapy and counselling is to be found in Robert T. Fancher, Cultures of Healing, New York: Freeman and Company, 1995
5. Experimental psychologists and neuroscientists have done very much better with investigating the illusoriness of 'will-power', 'decision-making', and so on. Ingenious experiments strongly suggest, for example, that our actions are frequently under way before our awareness of having 'made a decision', and that the reasons we give for what we do are frequently confabulated after the event. Much of the more recent of this work is usefully and accessibly summarized by Susan Blackmore (2001), Consciousness, The Psychologist, 14, 522-525.
6. Lomas, Peter. 1999. Doing Good? Oxford University Press.

This page last revised 18/12/01




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