In his fascinating book, Coming to our Senses, historian and social critic Morris Berman introduces the terms alienation or confiscation as a “rupture in the continuum of life.” Alienation is experienced as the feeling of an abyss where a sense of self or self-identity is missing or where the self does not feel safe. Many psychologists have speculated that this abyss or gap in the experience of the self may be increased or intensified by a lack of positive mirroring in the infancy stage.
Mirroring, which Berman defines as “the growth of self-recognition through the medium of other people” includes both the touch and gaze of others. Donald Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst, pediatrician, and pioneer in the clinical research of mirroring, developed object relations, the understanding of our separate self, or ego self, in relation to other objects or people around us. He suggested it starts at the time of birth because the infant develops his sense of identity based on what he sees mirrored back to him in his mother’s face. Thus, the quality of the mirroring experience from the mother figure is an important factor in a child’s growing sense of identity or self.
Because, as infants, virtually every one of us found ourselves wanting in some way--perhaps yearning for our caretaker who wasn’t physically available one hundred percent of the time to respond when we cried out of hunger, discomfort or a need for attention--we learned to experience ourselves as separate beings from everything and everyone around us. This led us to an understanding of an “Other” who is “not-me.” We also began to interpret the separate entity as withholding, and thus the universe as not generous, friendly, or giving.
Berman makes reference to an essay by Jean Liedloff, “The Continuum Concept,” in which he describes how the Yequana Indians of Brazil keep their babies in a sling carried by someone the entire first two years of their lives. (See some great photos of various indigenous mothers with babies in slings here). Berman notes that due to the continuous contact and attention, he babies do not experience the same sense of rupture or empty space in themselves that others of us in the modern western world do and suggests that we spend our lives unconsciously trying to repair the rupture or find the part of ourselves that is missing and has not been reinforced.
The rupture in the human experience is crucial and devastating in the development of ego. According to the French school of philosophy, the birth of one’s identity also marks the birth of alienation. At a very early age, we begin to realize there is a separate self which is experienced kinesthetically--we know it by “feeling”-- and an “Other” self that is experienced only visually--that is, by what we see in the mirror and by understanding that is how others see us. Sometimes this occurs for a child literally because he sees himself in a mirror and begins to be cognizant of the fact that he can be "seen" by others (Others) who do not experience him as he kinesthetically experiences himself from "within." Sometimes it is a slower process in which he begins to note discrepancies in how he feels and how others respond.
Whether a gradual realization or a sudden understanding, once the young child notices that the two “selves” are not perceived in the same way by Others, a tiny child with developing awareness is forced to choose between the two ways of being. In order to survive in society, he must adopt a way of being in the world that is reliant on how Others perceive him rather than how he feels he actually is. He is forced to shift away from a way of being that is kinesthetic in how he perceives himself --to relying on a way of being in the world that is visual based on how he is seen by Others. At the same time, then, he shifts from an interior way of being to an external or social way of being, and thus, as Winnicott says, from an authentic self to one that is false. This “false” self becomes our persona and often becomes a sort of “shell” we maintain for most of our lives.
Similarly, C.G. Jung understood each of us to be driven by an ego self, an autonomous part of our psyche that helps us survive and get things done. However, the ego is only a limited part of larger, more whole organism Jung called the Self with a capital S. The ego that accompanies us in ordinary daily life is only a minimal conscious part. What many in depth psychology refer to as the “Big ‘S’ Self” is the unified whole of us, the parts that are beyond our ego awareness. We cannot know the contents of the Self because they are outside of our conscious awareness. But, because the Self is believed to be whole and perfect, it emits constant instinctual urges for an individual to become unified or whole with the Self, a process Jung called individuation.
Depth psychotherapy and depth oriented practices can help us dig through patina of layers that have built up over time as a natural part of the human process of development. Only as we begin to become more self aware and rediscover that more authentic self-- and perhaps grow comfortable enough in our own skin through self-reflection, somatic practices, or psychotherapy, do we find ourselves able to shed some of the persona we have presented to the world and relax into a more true way of being. Only then can we start to question the deeply embedded beliefs and values we have assimilated as part of our culture, community, or family we grew up with, creating an opening into the unknown--one through which the “Big ‘S’ Self” can penetrate and begin to engage, resulting in what Jung called “individuation.” I use the term ‘individuation,’" writes Jung, "to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘in-dividual,’ that is, a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole.’" May we all learn to relax our deep seated conditioning and see what authentic essential being resides beneath…
Bonnie Bright is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, the world's first comprehensive online community for depthpsychology, and hosts a regular podcast, Depth Insights, as well as editing the semi-annual scholarly e-zine of the same name. She recently founded www.DepthPsychologyList.com, a free-to-search online directory to find or list depth psychology oriented therapists and practitioners. She holds Masters degrees in Psychology and Depth Psychology, and is a Ph.D. candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA.