Much of the therapy and self-improvement literature contain references to the “self”, as in “self-acceptance”, “self-love”, “compassion for yourself”, “self-hatred”, and “self-esteem”. These all imply a relative stability of personal characteristics, and an implication of an “agent in charge” of our actions. If our actions had no consistency, but were very different depending on situations that we found ourselves in, and if our conscious experience of life was not knowing from one moment to the next what we are likely to be doing, then we would not be talking about having a “self”. There are psychological theories that do not use the concept of self, like the approach known as behavior modification. This approach stresses that what behavior is “emitted” depends on the situation in which the behavior occurs and the person’s history of reinforcement or punishment for similar behaviors in such situations. For example, yelling often happens at sporting events and much less often at funerals, not because people “decide” to yell in one place and not another, but rather the behavior occurs as a result of the consequences the behavior has had in one situation or the other. In this approach, no “self” needs to be present in order for the behavior to occur.
In other psychological theories, the self is considered to be a key concept for understanding what people do in various situations. In these theories, the notion is that a person develops ideas about who they are and what is appropriate for them to do, and their behavior reflects these ideas. For example, people who think of themselves as “kind” would be making an effort to do kind actions as often as they can. Words like intention, choice, and purpose would be used to explain what people do. In this approach, a lot of thought and research has to do with what leads people to develop their self-concept and how possible is it for them to change their self-concept once it has been developed?
One additional influence on modern psychology comes from ideas developed in Buddhism. For the most part, Buddhist thought states that is no self, that the concept is a fiction and describes nothing real. For them, the reality of who we are could be stated, as it was in the movie, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, (2006) based on a book by Dan Millman, when the athlete performing on rings was asked by an inner voice representing his spiritual advisor, “what are you Dan”, he responded “this moment”. In other words, what we are changes from moment to moment and it is these changes that are real, not some artificial attempt to string all these changing moments together and pretend that they all relate to an unchanging “self”. One argument in favor of this position is that statements are often made about uncharacteristic behaviors that we find ourselves doing, “that was not like me”, or ‘that is not who I am”, as we cannot assimilate those actions into our self-concept and so they remain inexplicable.
As a clinician, I work a lot with clients to help them increase their self- love, their self-compassion, and their self-acceptance, and to decrease the negative energy they direct towards themselves, so obviously I find it useful to include the idea of a self in my therapy work. However, I utilize the idea that the self is fragmented, so that various parts of ourselves (many of them younger) can take over in different situations, e.g., when we are “triggered” by some event and lose control of our emotions, or when we experience a part of us craving something so much that we do not have a choice to not fulfill the craving. I think we all are trying to develop an adult self that can make rational choices in various situations that we encounter, but our common experience is that we are not able to make the best choices in some situations because our emotional reactions are so strong that we have no conscious control of our feelings and actions. In the same way, many of our actions are so habitual over a period of time that we act without conscious awareness in those situations as well, and thus are not making choices.
I suspect that Buddhism is correct in a deeper, spiritual sense that our self is not real, that we are so interconnected with the world at each moment that there is not a separate self that is independent in these situations. However, it would appear that it is helpful to first develop a strong adult self through therapy and then it can be transcended in our spiritual life.