Know thyself and know God


When Margaret Little was told by Dr X ‘For Heaven’s sake be yourself’ her response was ‘I don’t know who I am’. Certainly, by the end of all her years in psychoanalysis and working as an analyst with many people she knew a great deal more about who she was – and wrote books and poetry from the heart about her experiences.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says:

‘The Kingdom is in your centre and is about you.

When you Know your Selves

then you will be Known

and you will be aware that you are

the sons and daughters of the Living Father.

But if you do not Know yourselves

Then you are in poverty,

And you are the poverty.’

In this translation of the Gospel of Thomas by Hugh McGregor Ross, he uses the plural ‘Selves’ – for surely, we are made up of different selves rather than being one unified self. In the next few posts, I want to reflect on the ‘knowing and being known’ from the spiritual perspective, but with a bit of psychoanalysis thrown in.  McGregor Ross also explains that the verb ‘to Know’ is key in this amongst other teachings in the gospel, where, when it is used with a capital letter it means a profound certainty known at the depth of one’s being.

A central theme throughout Thomas Merton’s writings is that sanctity consists in discovering our true identity, where the essence of the spiritual quest is our search for our true self, or real self. Early on in 1949 he wrote about the problem of sanctity and salvation being the problem of finding out who one is and our true identity. He wrote: ‘every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person, a false self.’

Donald Winnicott who was able to help Margaret Little reach a sense of who she authentically was also wrote about the false self. He sometimes refers to this as the compliant or caretaker self – in other words an inauthentic part of us that has adapted because of our early environment to fit in, and go along with what is happening as a way of protecting the true self.

Both Winnicott and Merton share some common ground here in their understanding of the false self as not false in the moral sense or untruthful, but that the false self lacks any fullness of being. It is unsubstantial – perhaps hollow, and Merton describes it as deficient in terms of its impermanence. He also sees it as a self that is dominated by ego-centric desires. Winnicott understood it as unsubstantiated because it is not based on genuine desires, but rather is there as a way of managing – it is a way of keeping alive and coping with the terrors of the world.

Compliance is the beginning of the false self and comes from the mothering person’s inability to sense her infant’s needs. The infant is not being seen and not being heard in themselves, and so therefore struggles to build up a true identity. For some the false self sets itself up as real but eventually the strain causes it to fail. Sometimes the true self begins to emerge through symptoms, whilst for others the false self is represented by a polite and mannered social attitude – perhaps in church groups there might be particular pressure to conform and hide behind a false self (similar to Jung’s persona).