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The Narrative Structure of Self and Self-Identity

Each person operates within a kind of personal idiom based on a complex concept of the someone they have become, including the stor(ies) of how they came to be that way. This is the (evolving) narrative history of self, the story that he or she lives “within.” The major autobiographical themes are who we think we are (including who we are afraid we are); what we are invested in having, doing, and being; and who we think we are supposed to be and/or are striving to become. These reflect the total prior experience of how someone was related to during early development.

Because narrative shapes self-experience, it is a major focus in psychoanalytic psychotherapy: we explore the concepts someone has about themselves—i.e. their self-representations—and their related mentalizations about others. Selfnarratives tend to determine the emotional texture of our subjective experience. Bottom line: when the Story of Me is validated, I feel good; when it is punctured or invalidated, I feel bad. Narrative meaning is a continually changing and developing construction within the mind, and psychotherapy works in part by bringing awareness to it.9

One of the most difficult aspects of narratives that define self-identity is that they tend to function as self-fulfilling prophesies, setting up the very circumstances in life that will tend to prove them true. We unconsciously engage others in seeing us in ways that validate our self-identity. Moreover, the whole narrative construction of self often revolves around emotional pain that has not been adequately recognized or processed (Welwood, 2000).10

For this reason, negative views of self are quite resistant to change and may often be found at the core of emotional problems. A particular narrative may be perpetuated even after it has been demonstrated how dysfunctional it is. Sometimes a narrative persists even when it has become quite clear that it is not accurate (i.e. it is either no longer true or never was true). Moreover, self-stories impose unconscious boundaries on what is possible for us to experience in life. Because self-narratives are the backbone of self-identity, penetrating our stories and seeing clearly who we think we are is an important key to psychological well-being.

The very concept of self can be understood as narrative: to paraphrase Roy Schafer’s idea, the self is a story; it is the story that there is a self to tell a story to (Schafer, 1992). In practical terms, this means that the way we understand “self” is very important. When we illuminate the story that we tell ourselves (and others) about who we are, and when we come to understand it as a story, we can begin to shape and re-write the story of self in very helpful ways.11

The various facets of self and self-identity discussed in this chapter can be systematically investigated in psychotherapy and/or amplified by methods of investigation, inquiry, and self-reflection. We can inquire deeply about the stories of self, about our self-representations, our self-identity, and the way that selfing operates within our experience. We can mindfully investigate our ideas about ourselves, who we think we are. We can focus on seeing self-making in action. The structures of the self are also revealed in how one “part” of the self interacts with another part; for example, self-critical behavior may often be a vestige of an underlying dynamic between an angry parent and punished child.

Inquiring more deeply, we can engage in reflection about the power of narratives. Traits and qualities of “self” are concretized, made real, by thinking about ourselves in certain ways. We can reflect on the consequences of thinking of the self as having “parts,” and we can reflect on the way the “committee of selves” divvies up the territory of our life experience.

In our culture, self is expressed in language,12 and this language rests upon the pronoun “I.” We are forever telling stories about ourselves; we are continually narrating ourselves to others. At the same time, however, we are also telling this Story of Me to ourselves—in effect, enclosing one story within another. In his book about the narrative process in psychoanalysis, Roy Schafer (1992) put it this way: “A person can only tell a self or encounter it as something told ’ ’ (p. 27, emphasis added). In telling the Story of Me to ourselves, we are in effect imagining into existence an audience who is one’s self or oneself (Loy, 2010). To paraphrase Schafer, the self is the story that there is a self to tell to.

Once we recognize that self is narratively constructed, we add a very important dimension to awareness practice. It is illuminating to see selfing in the stories we tell about ourselves, and, especially, how tenacious this tendency is.13 Seeing deeply into the process nature of mind is a key dimension of dharma practice.

As has long been recognized in psychoanalysis, there are many narrative aspects of the self to notice. To single out one which is of particular importance (already implied in what is written above), self tends to view itself as singular, integral, and continuous, despite the fact that this is demonstrably untrue; even the briefest experiment with mindfulness meditation clearly shows that experience is discontinuous. Nonetheless, the mind is able to—and does—construct a sense of unique personal identity from the patterns in experience over time. Some psychoanalytic thinkers have recognized that, for this reason, self-identity must be considered to be a narcissistic illusion; it has even been termed “the very mother of illusions.”14

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