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The Self (Jung's Definition)

What is the Self? (In this book, the capitalized word, "Self," is used in accordance with Jungian psychology; obviously the word, "self," has other meanings in other contexts.) The Self has been described in various ways:

  1. It is the part of the psyche which organizes and directs the rest of the psyche -- the ego, the conscious mind, the personal unconscious, and all other elements of our psychological being.
  2. It is the totality of the psyche, including all of the elements, such as the ego, etc. Because the Self is all of the psyche, its viewpoint contains an objectivity, acceptance, reconciliation, and balance of the "opposites" of ego and shadow, persona and shadow, and our many contradictory feelings and impulses.
  3. It is the center of the psyche (like the nucleus of an atom) to which the other parts of the psyche are connected and subordinate.
  4. It is an archetype.
  5. It is a transcendent, unchanging part of ourselves, in contrast to the ever-varying ego, shadow, complexes, etc.
  6. It is a "God-image" within the psyche. Although Jung was criticized for allegedly implying that the Self is God, he stressed that the Self is not God itself but rather only an image of God, a representation of God as it would be depicted within the psyche (although he did call the Self the "God within us" in Psychology and Religion on page 334). An encounter with the Self feels like a "religious experience" with God; Jung said that the occurrence leaves us vitalized" and "enriched." In addition to being a symbol of God in the psyche, the Self could also be considered a symbol of what the religions call the "soul."

When we encounter the Self, we re-evaluate the ego. Some people mistakenly think that when they encounter the Self, they are simply discovering a greater view of their ego; this error can cause the people to (1) inflate their ideas regarding themselves (believing that the God-like numinosity of the Self is their own personal magnificence), or (2) weaken the ego (as the person attempts to rise into the Self's transcendence at the expense of the ego's healthy structure and limits). Ideally, in our meeting with the larger "Self," we retain the sense of the ego's small"self" as a still-valid part of ourselves. The ego is no longer our only center of identity; thus its importance downsizes to being simply one element of many in the psyche -- still powerful and important as a "manager" but it is not the big boss.

The Self grants new perspectives. When we can look at the ego from the viewpoint of the Self, we gain an objective understanding of the nature of the ego -- its claim to be our identity, its sense of distinction and preeminence over the psyche's other functions, its preferences and tastes, its quests for personal growth and mastery, and its self-centered perspective (which is not a bad thing but rather a vital standpoint for our focus and protection). When we meet the Self, we realize that we have previously assigned some of the Self's functions to the ego simply because we did not know the Self, and the ego seemed to be the only part of us which could fill these roles. Now we can transfer some the ego's functions to that Self; for example, instead of allowing the ego to devise our goals, we accept the Self's goals, which are aligned toward the actualization of its life-purpose; the ego, without the wise, balancing influence of the Self, tends to select goals that are no more than ego-symbols, such as an audacious home.

We gain many benefits from an identification with the Self.

  1. A deeper understanding of the components of the psyche, because the Self has an overview of the psyche. Our Self's perspective is free from the ego's distortions, such as, for example, a fear of the shadow.
  2. Better management of the psyche. Our psychological management -- ego management, shadow management, persona management, etc. -- is performed with a greater awareness and adeptness, because of the Self's knowledge and objectivity.
  3. A slackening of psychological battles. These include the battles of the ego against the shadow, the subpersonalities, the unconscious mind (as in repression), etc. We allow the Self to settle disputes internally with its intimate understanding of the parties involved. Since we do not cling to the ego's viewpoint, we can allow a compromise which is best for all. Also, when our ego is balanced by the Self, it is less likely to provoke external battles, which would engage us with the ego of another person.
  4. More resources. With our new comprehension of the psyche's elements, we can use those elements' attributes to contribute to our well-being and productivity. For example, we might gain better access to the unconscious mind's repressed memories, and the energy of the shadow's contents, and the formerly split-off qualities of our subpersonalities.
  5. Freedom. The Self accepts all "opposite" traits, including the ones which we selected for our ego and persona, and the contrary ones which we cast into the shadow. From the viewpoint of Self, we have a clear vision and objectivity regarding all of those traits, so we have the freedom and ability to reevaluate our selection, and perhaps redefine the ego and persona with this doubled repertoire of available, opposite traits. And because our identity is now invested in the wholistic Self, we have more leeway in choosing to commit, for example, a generous action or a selfish (i.e., tightly protective) action, without being bound to the ego's inflexible self-image (and resulting behavior) as a "selfish" or "generous" person.
  6. Detachment. The ego is in a world of boundaries, and schemes to expand those boundaries, and defenses against threats to the boundaries. The Self respects those priorities of the ego, but it is not engrossed in the ego's urgency and combativeness and emotional reactions; instead, it has a dispassionate, transcendent overview (which includes but is not limited to the ego's perspective). For example, whereas the ego might sense the emergence of contrary shadow material as a danger, the Self welcomes the occurrence as the awakening of a valid part of itself. When we are looking from the standpoint of Self, we are "detached" from the ego's desperate attempts at leadership, and we see that much of that desperation derives from the ego's cognizance that it truly is incompetent when claiming the leadership role which can be fulfilled adequately only by the Self. However, this detachment is not a cold withdrawal from life; instead, we might now engage life more robustly, because we do not suffer so much at the ego's inevitable setbacks in whatever new challenges we assume.
  7. Direction. When we realize that the Self has knowledge and power which are superior to that of the ego, we sensibly, strategically submit to this greater entity, and allow the ego to receive direction from it -- direction which might be contrary to the ego's short-sighted preferences. This submission is similar to that of a religious surrender to "the will of God"; some Jungian writers have said that the submission of the small self to the greater Self is like the crucifixion of Jesus, but the analogy is inaccurate because, unlike the human Jesus, the ego lives on, although in a different role.
  8. Individuality. Because the Self's inclusiveness allows a full spectrum from which to select behaviors and identity components, we become more obviously unique and "individual". Our individualism is charged with vitality and realness because we develop ourselves on the lines of the Self's destiny and life-plan instead of self-consciously creating ourselves from the ego's ideas of its own enhancement (primarily through material symbols of success, etc.)

We cannot know the Self intellectually. Although we can make certain observations about the Self (as this chapter has done), we cannot study the Self in the same manner in which a scientist would examine an amoeba under a microscope. Because the Self is the entirety of us, any viewpoint (such as the ego's viewpoint of the Self) would have a limiting blind spot, as in the situation of an eyeball trying to look at itself. We would be separating ourselves as "observer" and "observed" when in fact the Self is both. As Jung said (in Psychology and Religion on page 334), "Intellectually the Self is no more than a psychological concept, a construct that serves to express an unknowable essence which we cannot grasp as such, since by definition it transcends our powers of comprehension."

We can meet the Self in other ways. To the extent that the Self is comprehensible, we can become familiar with it through the sheer experience of it. We might also meet the Self in a dream's symbolic images, such as those of mandalas or crystals. One author said that the Self is symbolized not only by religious figures such as the Buddha, but also by cultural figures like Superman and Santa Claus. Until we discover this god-like Self within ourselves, we often project it onto people who exhibit "spiritual" qualities such as unconditional acceptance (e.g., a therapist, pastor, or a dear friend), or we might project it upon an object (such as a crucifix) or a place (such as a church) or an organization (such as a charity association).

We truly become acquainted with the Self during midlife. Life is a cycle; in youth, we need to concentrate on the development the ego and its external manifestations -- home, career, "our place in the world," our persona, our differentiation from other people, etc. Midlife is triggered by our relative completion of this ego development. At midlife, we have finished the first part of our life, and now we turn to the next task in the cycle of life, which is to re-integrate that which we needed to separate out during the ego-building stage; we meet the shadow, the anima or animus, and other previously ignored material. As we become familiar with those parts of ourselves, and we gain a view of the totality of us, we awaken to the synergism of these parts: they are not just separate elements, but they are also part of an overall system which has a great consciousness of its own. This system is the Self.


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