Young woman painting a picture of herself in her reflection

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How To Have a Better Relationship With Yourself

Western psychology tells us to strengthen and develop the self, Eastern religion tells us to let go of it — what’s the correct approach?

Whenever I go into a sensory deprivation tank, it’s always the same.

First, the claustrophobia sets in and my mind runs through various worst-case scenarios of getting trapped in the tank.

Then there’s a period of deep focus, where I’m able to follow my breath against the soundtrack of a thumping heart.

But it doesn’t last. Like a bored toddler who’s had all his toys taken away, my mind protests. “There’s nothing to do in here!” it screams, as I’m consumed by the inner restlessness of boredom.

With openness and curiosity, I observe the experience. Just a minute ago I was perfectly content counting my breaths, and now I’m consumed with a desire for more. How interesting.

I settle back into a deep calm and begin to lose all sense of time. Have I been here for a few minutes or a few lifetimes? Will I ever go back to the way things were? And then it hits me.

Without my internal narrator, and with nothing in my environment to reference that I exist as an independent entity, I find myself completely ALONE. There is no “me” anymore. There is only the awareness of breathing, the sound of a heart beating, and the occasional abstract thought.

Just as I become overwhelmed with existential terror, the lights come on and the filter starts whirring — the signal that my hour is up and it’s time to go back to the loud and chaotic world that I call home.

You are not alone

No Self, No Problem

Buddhism holds that the concept of having a self is delusional. It disputes the idea that the self is an objectifiable “thing”, but rather a constantly evolving, ever-changing “process” of conscious experience. Distilling the complexity of the human experience down to this discrete and pervasive “thing” we call a self, it argues, is reductive and illusory.

Buddhists believe that identifying with this illusory self (the ego), and its pathological degree of self-interest, is the cause of all suffering.

The ego is only concerned with two things: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. But its desires are only ever temporarily fulfilled; it quickly adapts to whatever it attains and is then driven to seek more. Similarly, its escape from pain is only temporary; as soon as it escapes one pain, another quickly takes its place.

The ego defines happiness as a state of permanent pleasure and total absence of pain. It pursues this at all costs, even when it’s clear the approach isn’t working. It stubbornly refuses to accept the law of impermanence, and keeps deluding itself that once it fulfills all its desires, it will finally be happy.

Only by ridding ourselves of this harmful delusion, are we able to achieve true and lasting happiness, goes the thinking. Anecdotal reports of wise yogis tell us this is not only possible, but that doing so will end all suffering.

But the science on “non-self” is unclear. We still don’t fully understand how the brain constructs the self, let alone what not having one would look like. Western psychology also contradicts the whole concept, opting instead to build a stronger sense of self. What’s the correct approach?

Western psychology vs Eastern religion

Western psychology argues that having a strong sense of self — a high degree of self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-compassion — is vital to good mental health.

Most psychotherapies seek to improve the dysfunctional relationship with the self. We might address the distorted view we have of ourselves through cognitive behavioral therapy. Or learn to accept the negative thoughts we have about ourselves through acceptance and commitment therapy. Or look at the unconscious drives behind our self-destructive behaviors with psychodynamic psychotherapy.

This self-focused approach has worked well for decades in the treatment of most mental disorders.

But despite the effectiveness of this approach, many still find themselves asking the question “will I ever truly be happy?” — a question that frustrates both patient and therapist.

If the Buddhist philosophy of “non-self” is accurate, then the problem isn’t the quality of the relationship with the self, it’s that we have one to begin with. The individualist ideas of Western psychology are then merely an attempt to “manage” the problem of self, rather than offer the definitive solution: disidentify from it entirely.

While the scientific evidence tends to be in favor of the Western approach, this is mainly because there are virtually no studies on the Buddhist concept of “non-self”.

The recently proposed “Nonself theory” was the first to scientifically examine the idea. It concluded that while disidentifying from the self could theoretically lead to less suffering, there wasn’t enough evidence to draw any conclusions.

But the theory did hint that a lot of the benefits of mindfulness may arise from less attachment to the self. By learning to see our desires and aversions as transient events in the mind, as we do in mindfulness meditation, we begin to see they are not who we are. With enough practice, we may become less identified with the self and its constant demands. We may begin to see beyond the egocentric view our culture instills in us.

But we shouldn’t throw the self-obsessed Western baby out with the bathwater. The mountains of scientific evidence can’t be disputed — psychotherapy works to treat the majority of mental suffering. And while the idea of “non-self” might sound appealing, it may pose risks for some…

The dangers of having no self

An article in the ‘American Journal of Psychotherapy’ suggested that some people may be best to avoid the Buddhist “non-self” approach.

Patients suffering from psychotic or personality disorders are at the top of this list. These individuals often have a hazy or fractured sense of self, and psychiatrists spend years helping them develop a stable, predictable sense of who they are. For these people, the “non-self” approach is likely to be counterproductive, even harmful.

Others at risk are those who’ve been oppressed by society. Their sense of self has long been invalidated by sociocultural forces, so pursuing “non-self” may make them feel even more alienated.

Younger generations may also be best to avoid pursuing the “non-self” path. Adolescents already have a tough time figuring out who they are. Premature attempts to disidentify from a self that hasn’t had the chance to develop may negatively impact their life trajectory.

Maybe I’m just a biased Westerner, but it seems a strong sense of self helps us achieve the life goals of early adulthood: building a social circle, finding a partner, completing further education, and getting into our chosen career. Young people need a strong sense of self to find their place in the world.

The article concluded that the “non-self” approach may be best suited for two groups: those in midlife who are looking for deeper meaning; and those nearing the end of life who will soon be forced to let go of the self.

Consider where you might lie on this spectrum. Do your life circumstances dictate a need for a stronger sense of self? Or do you feel you’re in a place where being less identified with the self might be of more benefit? If you don’t have a clear answer, there is a third option.

The middle path

What if we could nurture and develop our sense of self, while at the same time become less attached to it? Then, if the situation dictates a need for a strong sense of self we can consciously bring it out. For instance, when we attend a job interview, go on a date, or need to manage our co-workers. But when it’s no longer needed, we can opt to detach from it and become more selfless.

It’s useful to know that letting go of our sense of self is no easy feat. Many spend their entire lives seeking “non-self”, but few attain more than brief glimpses of it. Perhaps the high failure rate is because people jump to the last step — they try to say goodbye to a self who isn’t ready to leave yet. Like an immature child in need of nurture, the self may need to reach maturity before it can leave the nest.

By combining Western and Eastern approaches, we can help the immature self develop and mature, while coming round to the idea that one day it will have to leave the nest for good. That sounds like good self-parenting to me.

We can nurture and develop our sense of self in a number of ways:

  • Push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Doing this will uncover hidden aspects of yourself that aren’t visible when you stay in your safe, anxiety-neutral state. Life shows us who we are, through the experiences we have and how we react to them. Allow life to show you who you are by routinely facing your fears.
  • Seek new relationships. The old adage that you’re the sum of the five people you hang around with the most has some truth to it. If you only hang out with the same type of people, your self-growth may be stunted. Much of your self-concept comes from the social encounters you have, so make sure you’re hanging out with a diverse range of people.
  • Seek new experiences. Don’t be like the small-town guy or gal who gets stuck in the limited worldview of the town they never left. Travel to new places, try new things, and keep mixing it up. Not only will it help you develop your sense of self, but it’s also good for neuroplasticity.
  • Psychotherapy. Most people would benefit from psychotherapy at some point in their lives. Ideally, the approach should be tailored to your specific situation, with a therapist you respect and have a good rapport with. You might have to try a couple before you find one that ticks all the boxes.
  • Self-help. If therapy doesn’t appeal or is too costly, most modern self-help uses the same strategies that psychotherapies have used for decades. Some people find its informal approach more appealing than traditional psychotherapy. Just make sure you avoid anyone telling you how to become a billionaire or putting on guru-like live performances.

 

Alongside this work, we can try to become less attached to the same sense of self we’re developing. This sounds counterproductive, but in my experience, it’s quite the opposite. Being less attached to the self means we (link to first article) avoid getting stuck in an overly rigid view of it, and paradoxically encourage its development.

Dedicating ourselves to a daily meditation practice is a good place to start. I’ve recommended Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” app before (and I have no affiliation), but the more I use it the more it delivers on its promises.

Through daily guided meditations, Sam introduces new perspectives on this sense of having a self. He’ll frequently direct you to “look for what’s looking”, where you try to find where this feeling of “me” is coming from. Over time, we begin to see this feeling of having a self is just an appearance in consciousness. Like all mental formations, it comes and goes. Sometimes it disappears completely.

But meditation isn’t the only way to loosen our attachment to the self. Activities that put us in flow states — the total absorption in an activity leading to a loss of self-awareness — can help us get comfortable with being separated from it.

Many find yoga, walking, or other physical activity can put them more in touch with the flow of present-moment experience, and away from the emotional baggage of the self. Find what works for you, but do it regularly.

It’s important that you don’t use the “non-self” approach to try and escape from a self you don’t like. This is unhealthy, and is only likely to worsen mental suffering.

To use the immature child analogy again; it’s like a trouble-making teenager who feels that his parents don’t love him. Trying to “kick him out” is likely to make the problem worse. You’d be better off accepting them for who they are, offering them love and understanding rather than contempt.

Final thoughts

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