There are many ways people in the Western world define themselves: through accomplishments and successes; ethnic, community and cultural affiliations; character traits, spiritual concepts, geographic locations, historical lineages…the list goes on. It seems obvious that human beings at this point in history find great comfort in having a firm identity.
But there is another psychological phenomenon, both more global and subtle, that is even more essential to mental health than identity: the sense of a cohesive self.
What does that mean?
Basically, a cohesive self enables someone to navigate life’s challenges without excessive or persistent shame, helplessness, anxiety, depression, or codependency (compulsive caretaking.) It is a sort of inner strength and centeredness that withstands psychological collapse under pressure.
It’s difficult to define what a cohesive self is because when it is present, we don’t notice it (think: when the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten). It’s much easier to define what it isn’t.
Symptoms of an Incomplete Self
Many psychological “symptoms” result from having an incomplete self, depression and shame being top among them. Depression and shame are usually rooted in thoughts about oneself and the world that are extremely negative and despairing.
There may be a sense of doom, a feeling that you are unlovable, or that you’ll never be able to do anything right.
You may find that when around others, you automatically prioritize their needs, take on their feelings, or even mimic their personalities.
You may feel that in order to feel good about yourself at all, you need to be the best at everything, and receive constant affirmations from outside yourself.
Wondering “Who am I?” is part of a normal search for identity. Someone with an incomplete self might wonder, “What am I?”
In the course of my experience with clients, I have found that one of the most elegant and startlingly accurate ways of understanding how people arrive at a cohesive sense of self is through Heinz Kohut’s “Self Psychology” theories. Again and again, Kohut’s ideas have manifested in the lives of my clients, most noticeably with teens.
Kohut was a psychoanalytic therapist who developed his theory in the 1960s-1980s; While there is a great deal of complexity to it, its core concepts are refreshingly simple.
Kohut believed that as we develop in childhood and adolescence, we hunger psychologically for particular kinds of relational experiences. These relationships are often with other people, but can also be with objects or experiences. Heinz called these relationships experiences “selfobjects”.
We are all familiar with the idea that we need to be loved as children. But there is much more to developing a self than that.
Completing A Self
Kohut identified the following selfobjects as crucial:
Mirroring is the need for basic, attuned reflection from those around us. It is genuine, curious, empathic attention, active listening, and responsiveness. It can be as simple as a parent saying to their crying child, “I know, you’re really sad [angry/frustrated/confused/hurt] right now.” When a child feels like what they are doing, thinking and feeling is being observed and affirmed by others, it helps their inner experience feel real and valid.
Idealizing is a person’s need to find a representation of greatness or perfection; usually it’s another person. Think of the teen idol posters you see on your child’s wall, or a colleague or spiritual leader you admire. Often these are celebrities, musicians, spiritual or political leaders. By having someone to idealize, your developing self is strengthened because the tendencies to imitate, emulate and strive are cultivated and enhanced.
It doesn’t matter how closely you end up resembling your idealized selfobject; the important work happens internally, where you have a greater sense of who you through aligning with what you would want to be, and what is possible. Idealizing encourages positive psychological growth, and is an important stage in a move toward wholeness.
Alter ego or Twinship selfobject needs involve finding another person to feel “the same” as—someone who you feel sees the world exactly as you do, or has had very similar experiences or life circumstances. “Twinning” with someone like this helps us feel less alone in the world, helps us feel our experience is legitimate and shared, and helps us feel understood and connected to others through sameness. It also helps us distinguish ourselves from who we are not like, but as a team, which feels wholesome rather than alienating.
Adverserial selfobject needs are one of the most interesting and little-discussed. A counterpart to twinship, adversarial needs are met through having a healthy experience of opposition to perceived authority. This is what is motivating most teens to “rebel”, demand privacy, start fights, and criticize their parents and teachers.
This is the most difficult selfobject need to understand because it’s the most counterintuitive and also the hardest for others to manage. You might wonder, How can fighting possibly be a good thing?
One of the ways we experience ourselves as solid, as powerful, and as having agency in the world is through “pushing back” against larger forces. We get to experience our strength, clarify our opinions and assert our independence. We get to feel different from others—distinct, noble, righteous and bold.
We do this as children by pushing boundaries and devaluing people and institutions that have outsized control of our lives (parents, school, church, teachers, etc.) As adults, we join political movements, engage in activism, go up against our managers at work, and generally fight perceived tyranny in our lives in all its forms. More than just an outlet for our visions and anger, these activities strengthen our core sense of ourselves.
Affect Tolerance, though not discussed directly by Kohut as a selfobject need, is nonetheless essential to a sense of wholeness. Affect tolerance means being able to notice your emotions, feel them fully, not act them out (by hurting yourself or others), and trust that you will survive them.
By fully experiencing our feelings, we realize that they are finite, and that they will not destroy us or others. We get to know our inner lives better. We start to feel into a sense of ourselves as being contained entities.
Many people grow up in households where emotions are not discussed (or even acknowledged), and therefore don’t develop much affect tolerance. In good parenting, a child’s feelings would be noticed, allowed, and contained by the parent, whose ego strength and wisdom are much more developed. This makes the child feel safe, and they eventually internalize the ability to recognize contain their own feelings.
Much of the time, the opposite happens—children are told to “be a big [boy or girl]”, “Get over it”, or simply “stop crying!” Sometimes parents will feel wounded by the child’s expressions of sadness, anger, or love for the other parent, and communicate this to the child verbally or nonverbally. In such cases, children learn to either shut down their feeling self or even to believe that it is somehow destructive—that their feelings will hurt the people they love.
Affect tolerance is the number one selfobject need I see adult clients needing, and for these people the therapeutic work is largely about creating a safe space in which to develop emotional awareness.
Building A Self For Adults
This developmental model is very useful for parents to keep in mind as they try to make sense of their child’s behavior—especially with teens, who are in overdrive when it comes to self-development and exploration!
But I also hope that you adults out there will use this as a way to take inventory of your life experiences and focus your energies moving forward. If one of the above selfobject needs went partially or entirely unmet, it’s a safe bet that meeting it now will promote significant healing and well-being.