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What Is Self Awareness, And Why Should I Care? #2

April 27th, 2015 · what is self awareness

Now, really: what is self awareness?  As we saw in the last post, there’s more to self awareness than might first meet the eye.

what is self awareness

Precinct of the Prophetess, Delphi, Greece

“‎Gnothi seauton”… “Know thyself”  These words were known to the ancient Greeks, and were so precious that they were inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the ancient world’s most important oracular site.

Great words… how do we make them real for ourselves, now?

what is self awareness

Self-Awareness as Treasure

If you study the myth and wisdom of the human race, you quickly learn that self awareness has been viewed in many, many cultures as a treasure.

There is one thing that is universally characteristic of treasures: they are generally thought of that way, because they aren’t the easiest thing to get.

Many feel they know themselves.  What they generally mean is that they know the ego, the conscious portion of the personality, reasonably well.  Yet, the kind of “self-awareness” that really makes a difference happens on a whole other plane.  It’s usually about relating to parts of ourselves that are either partially or almost completely unknown to consciousness.


The Dialogue with the Undiscovered Self

The “price tag” for self awareness most often relates to the gradual discovery of what depth psychotherapy refers to as “the undiscovered self”.  We learn that we are something other than we seem to be to the ego, when it tells itself its stories.  As Jung stresses, and others echo in varying language:

what is self awareness

The experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego.

We turn out to be someone other than who the ego would like to believe itself to be.

In everyday consciousness, the ego plunges ahead heroically with its plans and goals, frantically striving to bring its idealized and sanitized pictures of who we are into being.  Yet, if we’re honest, at some point, we come up against another reality.  As Jung again says,

The self, in its efforts at self-realization, reaches out beyond the ego-personality on all sides; because of its all-encompassing nature, it is brighter and darker than the ego, and accordingly confronts it with problems which it would like to avoid.  Either one’s moral courage fails, or one’s insight, or both.  [MC 778]

First and Second Stage Ego

There is a big difference between an ego that cannot accept this new reality, and one that can, and adapts accordingly.  American Jungian analyst Edward Edinger describes these two states as “the first stage ego” and “the second stage ego”, respectively.  As he relates, “The first stage ego cannot accept defeat and therefore must suffer it totally” because its rigid attiude of non-acceptance of the self simply cannot be sustained (such a change in awareness can often occur in conjunction with major life transitions, including the midlife transition).

Self awareness, then, is really that life changing state in which the ego accepts the reality of our broader identity, the self, and stays in dialogue with it.  It’s much less rigid in its picture of our identity than “first stage ego”, and a great deal more compassionate in its dealings with who we are.  Above all, it’s a great deal more honest.  As Polly Young-Eisendrath and other later Jungians have stressed, what we are here referring to might be called a “felt sense” of self, of something bigger, rather than some vague metaphysical idea.

To Live in Accordance with the Self

What is self awareness?  Well, it’s certainly no simple cake walk.  Awareness of the broader self can be something that we work on, and grow in, for the whole of our lives, and that takes our best efforts [“the Treasure”].  It can result in encounters with ourself that are sometimes profoundly disturbing, but which can ultimately turn out to be some of the most important, valuable and defining experiences of our lives .

For many, the on-going work of depth psychotherapy is a key part of coming to a continuously growing, dynamic answer to the question of the self: “Who, really, am I?”

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

PHOTO:  Attribution Share Alike  ©  Lauren Jankowski ;  ; bark
© 2015 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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What Is Self Awareness, And Why Should I Care? #1

April 20th, 2015 · what is self awareness

What is self awareness, anyway?  Lots of people talk about it, but why should anyone give a hoot about it?

what is self awareness

Consciousness and awareness of the wider self are fundamental to depth psychotherapy and Jungian analysis.

Limitations of the Ego

Conscious awareness seems all inclusive, but is really fairly limited. What psychology calls the ego, the part of ourselves that is consciously aware, the  “I”, has being shown by contemporary neuroscience research to be but a small part of our psychic activity.

Contemporary technologies show us that the lion’s share of activity in the brain remains below, rather than above, the threshold of consciousness. The unconscious mind takes in a great deal of reality that eludes consciousness, and processing it in ways that consciousness can barely imagine, at speeds that leave consciousness in the dust!

To be truly self aware means to come to the greatest-possible understanding of these hitherto undiscovered aspects of the self, to respect them, and take them into account as fundamental to who we are. Truly mature adulthood involves permanent and ongoing dialogue with the unconscious mind, in openness, humility and continually expanding self acceptance.

what is self awareness

Long before the astounding discoveries of contemporary neuroscience, depth psychotherapists realized the great vastness and vital importance of the unconscious mind.   They realized that, very often,  encounter with the unconscious mind was a fundamental source of meaning and healing.


Awareness of the Unconscious

What actually is the unconscious? Simply put, it’s everything in our psychic life of which the conscious mind is unaware.  Yet, that does little justice to the huge variety of different things happening in the unconscious mind.

The personal unconscious certainly contains everything that we have forgotten or repressed. But it also involves a huge range of things pertaining to bodily awareness, and things we are subliminally aware of in the external world.

Yet much of the unconscious is not strictly personal.  Evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have both revealed innate patterns of response, built into the human mind that function over and above learning and human experience.  We share these with all other humans. There are various names for this aspect of who we are; Jungians refer to them as the collective unconscious.

To be truly self-aware is to be actively aware of, and related to, these aspects of our unconscious mind.

The Mechanics of Awareness

So, again, why should I care about any of this?  What is self awareness, and why does it matter?

Let’s look at a typical key example of our unconscious functioning.

what is self awareness

Consider human anger.  Anger is a part of the functioning of all vertibrates.  And, often, one of the early things encountered in psychotherapy is a person’s anger.  Yet anger can be repressed, often so much so that a person is even completely unaware that he or she has it.  Yet anger is a fundamental part of our human make up, as psychiatric researcher Erik Goodwyn tells us:

Survival tendencies… have required that humans have an innate capacity for violence and aggression in order to protect or garner resources.   Neuroscience has shown that frustration of goal-directed behaviour triggers [rage].

He goes on to outline the various different ways in which men and women express rage and engage in competition for scarce resources.  He points out specific innate patterns of behaviour that depth psychotherapy might call archetypal.

It’s possible for humans to be unaware that this whole dimension of anger is in them, and that, far from being an indulgence in sinful behaviour, is unavoidable and innate.  If we live with a lack of connection to this aggressive reality, and how it can plays out, we run some pretty big risks:

what is self awareness

Often, self-awareness is a matter of very great practical importance.

Consciousness Unfolding

Our consciousness is limited, but it is a matter of very precious importance.  In my next post, we’ll look more at self-awareness, how it’s essential on our life journey, and how depth psychotherapy can enhance it.

Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst

PHOTO:  Attribution Share Alike  ©  Ramiro Ramirez ; Allan Donque ; David Goehring
© 2015 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)