Although it is a relatively new discipline, psychoanalysis shares with the older Western spiritual traditions the affirmation of the existence of a self; that there is something in the ‘I’ that we imagine ourselves to be.
By implication to describe a self is also to describe a world and a culture in which we are embedded, so there are layers and complexities to what the self might mean. For Merton the two relevant terms are the false self which is both an obstruction and delusion to the finding of our personal identity in what he called the true self. In an early work Merton wrote ‘the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and discovering my true self’.
For both Freud and Jung the analytic process consisted of uncovering and discovering the self, the real person underneath the exterior presentation which was sometimes referred to as ‘ego’.
Later developments in psychoanalysis tended to emphasise good-enough environmental provision as the key to allowing the infant to build a personal ego, to manage the instincts and to cope with life. The self still then remained as something intrinsic to the individual person, the ‘something’ that could makes sense of living and might not always be so conscious. D.W. Winnicott memorably wrote: ‘A word like “self” naturally knows more than we do; it uses us, and can command us”.
Jung saw the ‘I’ as partly made up of a false self, he used the term ‘persona’, like a mask adopted as the psyche learns to become ‘civilised’. It was through this process of ‘civilisation’ that the primitive parts become assimilated and managed or split off and denied.
The persona is also a disguise because it fails to acknowledge the repressed and denied parts which may not fit with the image we want to, or are asked to, present to one another and in the world. All these aspects of our selves contribute to the personal shadow. However for Jung the shadow could also include societal and collective aspects passed down over generations that remained discarded, unrecognised and unwanted. Jung called these archetypal contents and was at pains to emphasise that it could be good or bad.
Somewhere in the heart of every person is what Jung called the self which is the personal part of what he saw as the universal God image (sometimes given a capital ‘S’ and sometimes not) and what Merton called the true self, a part of the inner life that is potentially spontaneous, alive and able to wonder at life.
For Jung the truth, if it could be found, was a chorus and integration of voices and the different parts of ourselves rather than something separate and removed from all our experience. This I think is what he called individuation – which he saw as something that our psyche longed and aimed for throughout life.