Of Self and Sense – What IS the Self?

Loss of the Self or a Sense-Of-Self is a common complaint among TBI survivors. We don’t feel “right”. Something seems “off”. We just don’t seem like “our old selves” — to ourselves, or to others around us. Sometimes the chasm between who we once were, before our traumatic brain injury, and who we become afterwards, is so wide that our old friends and many family members disappear from our lives, and we end up living in ways that we never would have guessed would happen.




Sometimes incarceration.

Unemployment… Or making a living doing work that is many orders of magnitude less complicated than we used to do on a daily basis.

And along with all the trappings of our old lives, we lose our sense of who we were — and are. We don’t just lose jobs and homes and marriages. We lose our Selves as well. Our Sense of Self.

But what does that mean? You can’t very well talk about losing a sense of something and grasp how important it is, without understanding what it is you’ve lost.

What is this thing called the “Self”?

I’ve done a fair amount of research on this, over the past few years. I had a few ideas to start with, many of which were informed both by experts and everyday folks who have commented at my blog. I Googled and visited websites, downloaded papers and read what experts had to say about the Self and how it can get skewed and screwed up after TBI. Unfortunately, what I found had a lot to do with official theory and what-not. And lot of it seemed to be written “from the outside looking in.” Some of it sounded like over-simplifications of what goes on inside our heads when we’ve sustained brain injuries, and some of it didn’t seem very respectful of survivors — it just wrote off the parts of us that had changed (and according to their reports wasn’t coming back) and focused on accepting the loss of those parts.

Ugh, how depressing.

I decided to go back in time and consult some of the giants of psychology. I read some of William James’ “The Consciousness of Self,” some 100 pages of discussion about the Self from a historical and psychological perspective. Eureka! I was enthused and hopeful.

But alas, the essay was so densely packed with ideas that go back to Locke and Latin phrases, that I quit reading after about 30 pages. I needed something more straightforward and less cluttered to get my head around.

I kept Googling and downloading papers and thinking… I thought I was headed down the right road… but then I hit a wall. It was all too much for me to process. In fact, I had actually been clicking and downloading all sorts of material that was distracting me from my main purpose and filling my head (and hard drive) with all sorts of conflicting ideas.

I was getting all caught up in a whirlwind of other people’s ideas. I needed to look for answers outside the box I’d built around myself.

So what is the Self? I looked it up.

My tattered copy of the Random House dictionary defines “Self” as:

  1. a person or thing considered as a complete and separate individual
  2. a person’s nature or character
  3. self-interest

With those three lines of information, I went back to the drawing board and worked on my own definition of “Self” which is consistent with my experience and also makes sense to me.

To me, the “Self” is — plain and simple — the part of us that keeps reliably showing up. It’s the part of us that we recognize as uniquely us, which sets us apart from everyone else, and feels familiar and comfortable on a deep, fundamental level. It’s who we are — and who we can expect ourselves to be in the course of everyday life.

Even when we’re doing things we know are wrong or we’re having experiences that are uncomfortable, disconcerting, or even painful for us, if our Sense-Of-Self is stable, we can manage to work things out. Our reactions and interactions are familiar enough to give us a foundation of deep-seated reassurance. They tell us who we are. They tell us what we can expect of ourselves. They set a sort of “trajectory” for self-development, so that years on down the line, we’ll recognize ourself as part of an ongoing continuum of self-development.

Self is the source of our perspective, our opinions, it’s the part of us that lets us interact with the rest of the world as distinct individuals with certain things in common with others.

Self is the part of us that gets things done. It’s the part of us which participates in life in its own special way, that makes decisions and takes action in ways that are uniquely ours — and our alone. It’s the aspect of us that over time has developed in ways that make us different (sometimes “better”, sometimes “worse”) from just about anybody we know. Even those traits we have in common with others have a certain quality to them that is uniquely us. That’s the part of us that lets us both perceive ourselves as separate from others and also find some thread of commonality, while participating in life and contributing to the world around us.

Self gives us a sense of being whole, coherent human beings in a fragmented, often confusing world.

By its nature, I believe Self emerges from the repeated, habitual expression of specific feelings and thoughts and interests which combine into an expression of who we are and what we’re all about. It’s the part of us that reacts in the same unique way to similar circumstances often enough to give our life a flavor all its own. It’s the part of us that responds in a predictable way to the world around us. And each time we react or respond in ways that are consistent with who and what we think we are, we have our Self reinforced and strengthened.

In a very real sense, I believe we are what we do; and our Selves arise directly from what we habitually do, what we habitually respond to. Repeated thoughts and actions fuse connections in our brains and inform the perspectives of our minds. The more we repeat certain thoughts and actions, the more firmly the connections get reinforced, and the easier it becomes for us to think and feel those things. The things we do easily (even if those things are not very positive or productive), we tend to repeat even more, whether it’s because we enjoy it, or it’s just the easiest thing to do. It’s a self-perpetuating process, this creation of Self, and it’s as pragmatic a process as you can get.

When we’re young and are confronted by an angry parent over something we broke, we may lie and blame it on a sibling or a neighbor kid. Our parent believes us, we’re out of danger of being punished and rejected by this important person, and suddenly all is right in the world. We mess up again, and find we’re able to cover our ass again with yet another lie. Given enough time and repetition and “positive reinforcement”, we can turn ourselves from someone who lies, into a liar. And we can expect ourselves to lie again in the future, based on our Sense of Self.

Or, by chance one day, we may pick up a pencil and start to doodle and discover we’re pretty good at drawing. People around us notice our talent and encourage us to do more. Again, given enough time and repetition and positive reinforcement, we develop a Sense of Self that’s more than someone who draws and doodles — we know ourself to be an artist.

We join a sports team because it seems like it could be fun, we find that we enjoy it, and we practice like crazy. We learn to play well, and through our efforts the team has a winning season. In the space of a soccer season, and we go from being a kid who is interested in soccer and plays enough to get good… to being a Winner. We come to know ourselves as more than a recreational player — our Sense of Self is all about being an expert soccer player who wins more often than not.

We arrive in a new town as a total stranger, and we connect with people we like — and who like us. We enjoy these new friends, and we build good relationships with people around us. Over the course of days and weeks and months and years, as our community comes to recognize our public Self, we go from being a friendly stranger to being a pillar of our community and one of the most popular people around. It’s not just who we do, it’s who we are. And our Sense of Self is closely tied to our connection with others, both privately and publicly. We’re not the only ones who have that sense of “who we are” — everyone else does, too.

Even without positive reinforcement, if we have the same sorts of experiences over and over again, we can come to perceive those experiences as part of Us, part of our Self — either resulting from our own actions or the cause for why we are how we are.

A bully beats us up three times a week all during 5th grade, and we’re too small to fight back, too slow to run away. Through repeated beatings, failed attempts to avoid them, and lack of support or protection from parents and teachers, our behavior changes from outgoing and friendly to reserved and distrustful. In less than a year, we transform from a bright kid who is unfairly treated by bad people, to being a human punching bag who’s almost flunking out of school.

A parent chews us out constantly over things we don’t realize we did wrong, and no matter what we do, we can’t seem to do anything right. Every time we turn around, we’re criticized and attacked for what we did or said or thought or felt. No matter what we try, we can’t seem to escape it, and so we go from being a kid who gets a little turned around sometimes, to being a victim of verbal abuse who “can’t do anything right.”

Ultimately, we become the product of actions we repeatedly take in response to our life experiences. In that repetition of responses, whether it’s positive or negative, the connections of our brain and our central nervous system and emotional/mental perspectives are created and reinforced. These continually define and redefine patterns and traits which we recognize as our “Self”. Throw in external reinforcement (from other people or good and bad circumstances that happen as a result) which validates our own perceptions, and you have the cement that holds the structure of our life — and our Self — in place… for better, or for worse.

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