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It’s a cliché of certain old films that a flash of psychoanalysis-induced insight can miraculously resolve serious conditions and lead to an instant cure. Once the psychoanalyst has interpreted the contents of the patient’s mind, the doors to health and recovery are flung open – think of Gregory Peck being pulled back from his amnesia in Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound.
So how transformative is it to shed light on the hidden recesses of our minds? Without even addressing to what extent we are able to reach those recesses, with psychoanalysis or other manner of torches, the answer is mixed.
For a start, while becoming more aware of your inner landscape may be fascinating and entertaining, it need not change the way you act and live. Most of us probably know people who have accumulated an impressive amount of self-knowledge without putting it to good use. Once you’ve become conscious of a trait or feature, you can use it to avoid change by turning it into an immutable fact about yourself.
Other things are necessary for change to occur: motivation, for instance. But even if you have both insight and motivation, you may need to supplement them with support and strategies to deal with ingrained habits and patterns. Knowing that you have a phobia may not be enough to overcome it but there are techniques you can learn to do this, or to deal with anger management if that is your weak spot.
While the notion of uncovering childhood trauma clings on in the public consciousness, reaching into the deep springs of action may be neither necessary nor sufficient for change. It’s certainly interesting to try and trace the influences that contributed to making us who we are but the most readily usable kind of insight is an awareness of present inclinations, habits and patterns. Once you spot a tendency to think, feel and act in certain ways in certain situations, you can take steps to counteract this behaviour. It’s good to “know thyself”, even better to act on that knowledge.
Perhaps the most fundamental kind of self-knowledge is knowing what the self is. Yet this is a knowledge few seem to seek, happy to make do with commonsense notions of “person” or “human being”.
Those who push further do not all agree but there is substantial convergence of opinion among psychologists, philosophers and Buddhists. Their view is that the self is not a single, simple, unified entity but a more or less organised collection of embodied thoughts, feelings and sensations. One way to think of this is that the self is more the product than the producer of conscious activity. As Descartes should have put it: there are thoughts, therefore I am.
Some have thought that accepting this can make a huge difference to our lives. One of the foremost contemporary articulators of the view, philosopher Derek Parfit, wrote that seeing ourselves as less clearly defined blurred the boundary between ourselves and others. As a result, he had become “less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others”. Similarly, Buddhists believe the anattā (not-self) view helps us to come to terms with the impermanence of our own existence and adopt a less grasping attitude to life.
I think there is something to all these claims. It can be liberating to see ourselves as more fluid and less fixed. And yet in some ways the true view leaves us much as we were. We may give up delusions of permanence but that does not mean our less solid selves are illusory. We are still mortal, thinking, feeling beings with good cause to love life and regret its passing. There seems no reason to lose all sense of attachment to ourselves and others just because we believe we are not quite what we naively seem to be.
To know fully who you are, you need to know what you are. Although this kind of self-knowledge is not a passport to serenity and acceptance, it can perhaps provide us with a little more of both, which is surely consolation enough.
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