It is always worthwhile assessing where we stand to begin with before embarking upon some other system of categorization or analysis. What do we currently mean (or think we mean) when we talk about our selves? One way of approaching this might be to look at the sorts of expression that are typically used in everyday speech. Initially, we might think it is all quite straightforward – indeed self-evident, one might say. But the words we use do not always convey info rmation about the same thing – and sometimes it is not always clear on analysis exactly what we are talking about. Someone practicing self-defense is simply protecting his or her body. If they are self-absorbed, they are wrapped up in their own thoughts. Self-expression is the use of some medium, art, music or whatever, to make some statement to others about one’s ideas, attitudes or feelings.
Someone who is selfish is only interested in himself. If selfless, she will always consider others first. Similarly, some people may be self-taught or self-reliant. No problem with either of these. Others might indulge in self-pity and most of us will put self-preservation high on our list of priorities – again quite understandable. We talk about someone being self-assured, self-centered and self-important. These indicate characteristics of a person that are exhibited, usually unintentionally, to others. Similarly, self-conscious, self-contained, self-regarding, self-restraint, self-reproach and so on are words that we might use to describe the personality of another. But what exactly is such a word saying about the process that is taking place in the persons themselves?
Self-consciousness is a perfect example. Who is being conscious of whom? Is such a phrase a relic of Cartesian mind-body dualism, where some mystical homunculus is sitting somewhere in the brain interpreting the electrical impulses arriving at the synapses from the sense organs? Words such as self-starter imply that there is your body-mind complex on the one hand and some controlling real you on the other hand that decides what the former is going to do and sets it in motion. And this is effectively how most of us think. There we are, lying in bed in the morning having just woken up, and we have to make a conscious decision to force this body out of bed. Or perhaps you are one of those people whose self-discipline has become so habitual that you find yourself out of bed and in the bathroom before you actually start thinking for the day! But in this case, exactly who is it who is doing the finding and how does this differ from the one that is found?
There are many colloquialisms that highlight the peculiar nature of this dichotomy. An old pop song, for example, used to claim “I just don’t know what to do with myself”. Someone in a depressed state of mind or in a situation with chronic lack of stimulation might be told “you need something to take you out of yourself” or “don’t let yourself go!” There is no escaping the fact that the way we speak implies that we are not actually the physical manifestation that presents itself to others but something else that has control over it.
Surprisingly, someone who is self-absorbed is unlikely to be able to follow the instruction not to let himself go whereas someone exercising self-denial probably will be able to (or perhaps they wouldn’t have got into the situation of meriting such advice in the first place). But what on earth is going on when someone indulges in self-criticism? How can someone have self-doubt? Surely we know who we are? How can there be any doubt about this? Is this what self-delusion is all about? These phrases are not at all self-explanatory and we need to start using some other words in order to try to make some sense out of it all.