Although the idea of “Self” might tantalize the mind, the experience of “Self” can only emerge from the direct, moment-by-moment, immersion in life. In this article, the author attempts to bring these two spheres into communion within the framework of his own personal and professional experience of working with children.
“All my images of myself as I wished to be were images of myself armed. Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me. This much I understand now. But the man can give no help to the boy, not in this matter nor in those that follow. The boy moves always out of reach.” – T. Wolff (1989)
On the one hand, the idea of “Self” is very simple – it’s just me experiencing each moment from my own unique perspective. On the other hand, it is a mind-boggling notion that urges me to come to terms with my place in the cosmos. Beyond our daily struggle to survive are there any questions more important than “Who am I?” “Who are you?” and “What are we doing here together?” Yet none of these questions can be addressed independently. Without “you,” there can be no “me,” and without our relatedness, there is nothing for us to share. In the human journey, then, relating to Self and relating to others are essential aspects of the same developmental process.
Paradoxical as it may appear, the more I am able to experience my Self as a separate and unique being, the more I am able to become an active participant in seeking, creating, and sustaining my relationships with others – and vice versa. I believe that this quest for relational autonomy is a central, life-long, developmental theme. For me this has translated into a dogged determination to transform obligations into choices, each step moving me closer to the centre of my own life and toward authentic connectedness with others.
As a professional, it took me over 30 years to become completely convinced that within each and every “client” there is a powerful essence with all of the wisdom and resources to respond to circumstances and create a unique experience of life. As a practitioner, it is taking almost this long to learn how to work toward creating the conditions in which this essence can be invited to come forward and take its place in the world. Even now, I struggle to sustain the faith and the discipline that make it possible for me to simply sit back and allow the process to unfold. But every time I am privileged to witness this remarkable transformation taking place, my own separate and unique sense of Self becomes confirmed.
What I was told
Being trained in the traditions of western psychology, I was always led to believe that the Self is an idea we carry around in our heads – a complex and recurring pattern of thoughts through which we define our qualities, identify our potentials, and evaluate our performances. According to this view, any feelings we happen to have about our Selves, including our sense of personal esteem, are simply emotional responses to such thoughts, triggered through our day-to-day encounters with the world.
Most of my mentors seemed to agree that this image of Self begins to form very early in life and develops through the assimilation of feedback from our primary caregivers. As these “significant others” respond to us, we begin to internalize their definitions and appraisals of who we are, our place in the scheme of things, and our value in the world. Since this Self-view is held together by our actions, we generally learn to do those things that confirm our “identity” within our prescribed network of relationships. Later, as we come to recognize our Selves by observing and evaluating our own behaviour, we develop our own internal Self-affirming feedback loop, giving our Selves a sense of continuity. As cognition develops, so the emerging idea of who we are becomes increasingly complicated and differentiated. Given the mind's preoccupation with creating consistency and predictability in our lives, this Self-view, along with its associated feelings and behaviours, also becomes increasingly stable. By the time we enter school, it is so well established that, although subsequent experiences may produce some interesting new melodies, the basic theme remains relatively constant, perhaps for a lifetime. Some might think of this as our “personality.”
As an aspiring professional, it was important for me to recognize that any modification to a client’s established Self-view could only occur through powerful and persistent changes in the program of messages received from significant others. In working with children, my first task would be to become “significant,” although my teachers never seemed quite sure about how I should do this. I would then need to be very aware of the verbal and nonverbal feedback I offered, paying particular attention to how such opinions and appraisals were being received and incorporated into the child's existing configuration of ideas. It also occurred to me that, in order to create an effective internal feedback loop, the child would need to learn behaviours compatible with any change in Self-image. Encouraging a child to behave in ways incompatible with her or his view of Self would likely result in “cognitive dissonance” anxiety or even cognitive fragmentation. I realized that it would be a delicate and difficult task, demanding all of my professional skills and insights.
Believing the Self concept to be a central ingredient in the process of psychological growth and change, I worked diligently to bring Self-modification techniques into my professional practice while continuing to play around with my own theoretical variations (Fewster,1977). Yet, even in my most zealous professional moments, I always harboured a notion (an intuition, you might say) that, at its core, my own sense of Self was more than a constructed identity defined by what others had to say about me. Surely there was more to me than that! From the inside, it always seemed that I had some part in influencing how others responded to me, and, while I have spent much of my life seeking the approval of others, I have always treasured that part of me that is essentially indifferent to what others might think of me or expect of me. In fact, as the years passed by, it became increasingly clear that the real Gerry Fewster was quite different from the image that had been constructed and presented through my interactions with others, particularly the “significant” ones. So, while it seemed okay for me to apply my well-learned theories to other lives, at some level I exempted my own Self from the process – an objective professional stance, of course. Having been trained in the fine art of behaviour modification, however, I was already quite capable of taking myself out of the equations of my professional theories and practices.
My disowned Self
However much I learned about the cognitive Self and its dependence upon external messages, I continued to have an unsettling sense that my “real” Self had little to do with what others (including my parents) happened to think of me, and that their opinions were probably more about them than about me. My professional mind continued to assure me that my discomfort had to be some form of “cognitive dissonance” caused by external feedback incompatible with my well-established Self-view. Yet, the glitch in my belly often seemed to occur when such information was actually confirming what early significant others had always said about me – “a carefree lad who likes people, but not too bright.” If contradictory messages were coming from the inside, I could only assume that they were lurking somewhere in my unconscious, so I simply held onto my breath and concentrated on maintaining my place in the world.
Though I became reasonably adept in the use of language, I made sure that my endarkened messenger was not empowered with words, fearing that what it had to say might be totally unacceptable to others and, therefore, to me. Had this wordless voice simply countered everything the outside world was saying about me, I might have explained it away in terms of what Carl Jung called “the shadow– – the unconscious extension of the Self in the opposite direction. But much of what I sensed about my Self on the inside wasn’t really opposite, just different. I was many years into my adulthood when I discovered the sad, creative, and intelligent being who was more interested in Self-expression than in other people’s lives. Contrary to all of my theoretical formulations and predictions, this discovery was made with little or no feedback from others.
In recent years, as I have struggled to bring this part of my Self into the world, I have been fortunate to be around people who have acknowledged and welcomed the tentative glimpses of my lost Self, without any particular investment or judgement. But, as this Self finds such expression, it undergoes its own transformations; not into what others might want but into a growing sense of aliveness and purpose that generates an ever-widening spectrum of thoughts, emotions, and connections. Through the expression of my sadness comes the unfettered joy of being engaged in life, and through my quest to be seen comes the simple pleasure of reaching out to see and touch other lives. I have often wondered how my life would have been if my early significant others had seen all of this in me, but, to use a hackneyed phrase, “life is a process.” I also know that those who nurtured me through those early years did the very best they could and could not give me what they, themselves, did not have.
So, like most people, I grew up being far more concerned with the outside voices than with whatever might be speaking to me from the inside. Meeting external expectations and being what others wanted me to be was more than a matter of choice – it was a matter of survival. As a child, my compliance was simply the price to be paid to ensure that my most basic physical and psychological needs were addressed. And the more my fledgling mind developed its need to provide me with a consistent and predictable world (including a consistent and predictable me), the more I deferred to the external authorities for my knowledge of Self, always seeking their approval or, failing that, their attention. In this way, my Self-esteem became inextricably linked to my capacity for conformity, if not obedience.
Of course there were times, particularly during that period we like to call “adolescence,” when I decided to rebel against the leviathan of external expectations. A well-meaning social worker once explained to my distraught parents that this was a “normal” developmental phase, critical for something called “individuation” to occur. But she was wrong; this was no expression of the inner me – I had effectively cut myself off from that source of information. Whatever the adult world seemed to want from me, I did the very opposite. I was simply rattling the bars of my cage. Had I found a way out, I wouldn’t have had two clues about what to do with my hard-earned freedom. The information I needed remained securely locked away on the inside. There was no hope of “individuation”; I was as tied to the external world as I’d ever been. Real freedom, somebody once said, is wearing your galoshes even if your mother says you have to.
Later, my teachers, who always seemed free from such inner conflict, assured me that my wordless voice was merely intuition – an interesting human experience but basically irrelevant in the overall scheme of things. The more enlightened ones said it was probably the residue of redundant preverbal learning while others talked of primitive urges, ids, or libidos that needed to be controlled by the mind, or ego, in the service of some version of “reality.” I remember leaving church in my early teens convinced that, deep inside, I was a sinner who needed to be cleansed of my inner desires and forgiven for their momentary expressions. Given the warnings of parents, teachers, Sigmund Freud, and Father O’Connor, I had every reason to stay well clear of my wretched inner world. While I was curious about what George Herbert Mead (1934) had in mind when he talked about the “I” behind the “me” and excited by Carl Jung’s liberation of the unconscious, it was the philosophers (well, some of them) who continued to stimulate my interest in the mindless Self. Who am I once I stand outside my own mind? Or, as some alien once asked, “When the mind asks itself a question and proceeds to come up with the answer, isn’t there an immediate conflict of interest?”
The implication that both excited and concerned me was that if there really is a Self that lies beneath the mind's miraculous and devious contortions, it is unlikely to be located in the brain. Left to its own devices, it appears that this complex little organ is quite preoccupied with its organizational tasks in the service of the mind – the brain has no mind of its own. But who else, or what else, could possibly serve to influence or direct its attention? Surely not the sinister wordless voice that would destroy me from the inside out. Far better that I seek the approval of my “elders” and find redemption in the eyes of God. In more recent years, however, my experience has suggested the opposite. It seems that whenever I do contact that inside place, usually somewhere deep in my belly, I eventually discover only my own well-being, along with a profound sense of good will toward others. Remarkable as it may seem, in this place I need no moral prescriptions to guide me, no set of expectations to motivate me and no Self sacrifices to express my humanity. Yet however Self-full I might feel for a time, sooner or later my restless mind jumps in with its list of reminders about what must be done if I am going to succeed and, thereby, feel good about myself.
The humanistic movement of the 1960s and “70s appeared to grant unexpected permission for me to explore my wordless Self without having to endure the punishing judgements of others, the loss of my professional dignity, or the wrath of God. Terms such as “Self Awareness” and “Self Actualization” were bandied about as emblems of a newfound freedom as many of us struggled for authenticity, peeling back the layers of the “phony” Self with hard-core group encounters, mind-bending drugs, or simply “letting it all hang out” through carefree catharsis. Rather than promote the cause of Self-exploration, however, this colourful rebellion simply substituted one set of external prescriptions for another. Encouraged to “do your own thing,” most of us had no idea what to do, other than to follow the gurus of the new authority – one that seemed to support any form of self-indulgence. No wonder it was termed the “me” generation. Apart from a smattering of perfunctory research (e.g., Jourard,1968; Schutz,1973), the notion of an authentic Self gradually became lost in a new brand of mysticism, fueled by the growing popularity of eastern philosophy that sought the Self in the realm of higher consciousness through transcendentalism and meditation.
During these heady years, a relatively small group within the Human Potential movement was cultivating the field of Bio-Energetics. Drawing from the ideas of Wilhelm Reich (1945), a renegade from the camp of Sigmund Freud, and encouraged by early discoveries in the realm of bio-feedback, practitioners like Feldenkrais (1949), Lowen (1980), and Rolf (1974) began to discover how both the body and the mind seem to reflect the same energetic system. Through their pioneering work they showed how the body actually contains information hitherto considered to be the matter of the mind. Using various bodywork techniques to release energy blocks, they found that their clients also “released” memories and traumas, often dating back to the experiences of early childhood. Stuff that might have taken years to splutter from the analyst’s couch came gushing out in a mindless catharsis of verbalizations, sounds, and contortions. Still searching for personal authenticity, many of us lined up to tear the shackles from our imprisoned Selves and finally announce our arrival in the world – to release the primal scream (Janov, 1970).
It was fascinating work, and a whole generation of bodywork theory and method has subsequently emerged from the efforts of these early pioneers. The basic problem was that, as with most forms of psychotherapy, there was little real evidence to suggest that the catharsis had any lasting beneficial effect in terms of enhanced authenticity or personal well-being. It seems that both body and mind have a tendency to revert back to a familiar pattern, or stasis, however blocked or uneasy it happens to be. Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that such dramatic revisiting of early injuries or trauma could be damaging to the Self, creating even more defenses and further silencing whatever might lie behind the commotion (e.g., Ogden,1997). Speaking personally, I can only say that such bodywork experiences did little to bring my own inner voice into the world. On the other hand, it is important to recognize that the bio-energetic pioneers were instrumental in bringing our attention to the fascinating relationship that seems to exist between our bodies and our minds, leading to the distinct possibility that our sense of Self actually encompasses both.
In spite of many tantalizing issues raised by the “humanists,” the movement as a whole did little to establish its own empirical base. To some extent this can be attributed to the failure or reluctance of its proponents to develop new methodologies capable of examining the complex, non-observable phenomena that make up the human subjective experience. Charged with the crime of being “non-scientific,” many self-confessed humanists simply abandoned any form of grounded reality and transcended into the “New Age,” substituting mysticism for knowledge and faith for evidence. Personally, I wasn’t looking to transcend anywhere. On the contrary, I was hoping to descend, to peer down into the darkness, rather than seek the everlasting light of the cosmos.
My professional dilemma
Ironically, much of the terminology left over from the “me generation” was subsequently incorporated into the mainstream cognitive traditions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the preoccupation with the notion of self-esteem that dominated popular psychology for over 20 years. Throughout Europe and North America, educators, parents, and helping professionals were devising and applying methods designed to enhance the self-esteem of kids. High self-esteem was considered to be the foundation for all forms of success, from scholastic achievement to pro-social behaviour. In clinical psychology, the enhancement of self-esteem became integrated into models of social competence and incorporated into the practices of cognitive behaviour modification. The state of California (where else?) wrote the pursuit of self-esteem into official government policy. Yet few people seemed to be very concerned about the Self that the kids were supposed to feel good about. What mattered was to get lots of positive feedback and, above all, to avoid the vicious trap of feeling bad about having low self-esteem.
I went along with all of this professionally, but by now I had become determined that my own sense of Self would never again be manipulated by the stuff (positive or negative) dished out through the agenda of others. At that time I was the director of a large residential centre for children, and we were anxious to show that our efforts to enhance the esteem of our residents were paying dividends. To convince ourselves and our sponsors, we ran batteries of self-esteem inventories to support our claim that the kids were changing their self concepts and evaluating these images more favourably. Even more impressively, behaviour rating scales provided convincing evidence that identified “undesirable” behaviours were being replaced by new sets of socially appropriate responses. And, yes, the same effects were being documented in the area of school achievement. Contextually, there was no doubt that relationships between the staff and the residents were becoming increasingly positive, as success became a commodity to be shared. In short, we appeared to have created a highly successful, self-reinforcing treatment program.
Given all of this, it was difficult to call our methods into question but, once again, I found myself believing that something was wrong with this picture. I recalled the boyhood summers I spent with my Aunt Nellie who, unlike my parents, always rewarded me with small gifts and kind words whenever I “behaved myself,” weeding in her garden, looking after her two cocker spaniels, or running to the corner store. I quickly learned what I had to do to please her and, having deep-rooted questions about my abilities and acceptability, I pursued this cause with something of a passion. I became very attached to Aunt Nellie and much preferred her “good boy” definition of me to the one that my parents and teachers seemed to hold, though God knows I had tried to please them also. I desperately wanted to live with her and bask in the positive light of her presence, always resenting the inevitable return to the harsher realities of life at home. If you had “measured” my self-esteem during these short summer episodes, I’m convinced that you would have seen a marked improvement. I would have done anything for Aunt Nellie, and there is no question in my mind that it was she who decided that I should abandon my thespian fantasies to become a “people worker.” It was far more important for her to like me than for her to know me, so I showed her what she wanted to see and she gladly reflected this back with a smile and a candy bar. In terms of our relationship, I really didn’t know Auntie Nellie and she certainly never came to know me. In fact, we were so busy using each other for our secret purposes that we weren’t even curious about each other.
For years I wrote to her regularly about my progress and waited anxiously for her letters of approval. Eventually, my need for external validation could not be satisfied with the odd letter from an aging aunt and I began searching elsewhere for such gratification – from my friends, colleagues, teachers, and barroom acquaintances. To be honest, I was also looking for the same type of validation from my clients, though I would never have admitted this at the time. Yes, I understood the principles of “counter transference,” but that was just another theory about other lives. Working with children, my sense of esteem was inextricably bound up in their willingness to respond to my ministrations, and I worked diligently to elicit the momentary high brought about by their conformity. To the outside world I was a dedicated and effective practitioner, and that world continued to bestow its approval upon me. On the inside, however, I was becoming tired. At a deeper level, I was struggling to contain the resentment that comes from living a life dedicated to fixing and pleasing others. On the odd occasion when I tried to dig beneath the resentment in the hope of finding some strength on the inside, I found nothing. I realized that I was dependent upon others for my sense of Self and my feelings of worthiness, but I soldiered on regardless, until I became worn out, burnt out, and, finally, dropped out.
The more I looked at our successful treatment program, the more unease I felt about what might be lurking beneath the surface. Were we being a bunch of Aunt Nellies, using our social reinforcement strategies to shape other Selves and create an insidious form of dependency? Certainly our primary techniques were external, focusing more upon the evaluations of the practitioner than whatever the kids might be experiencing on the inside. If they were invited to explore their feelings, such invitations usually occurred following the successful application of positive feedback – “Yes, now that you approve of me I feel really good.” There was no question in my mind that kids became “attached” to those staff who were designated to dispense approval to them, although I noted that when these staff were not on duty many of the behaviours supporting the child's old identity returned. Residents were encouraged to pursue particular activities in which they might experience “success” and through which the staff could remain “positive.” To what extent the staff were promoting their own self-images through the “success” of the kids is a matter for speculation, but my intuition certainly raised the question. For some reason, I still had a preference for those kids who didn’t seem to give a hoot what others thought of them, although I realize that they too lived in their own psychological prison. For me something had to change, but it’s difficult to bring about change when everything seems to be working out so well. Who in their right mind would listen? I was in desperate need of theories that might speak to my intuition.
Many humanistic writers, of course, have posited the notion of a “Core Self” that forms the essence of who we are, including our unique qualities and innate potentials. Within this tradition it has long been assumed that it is in the emergence and development of this essential Self that the full expression of our humanness becomes realized. Of late, I have been particularly interested in the work of Jack Rosenberg (Rosenberg, Rand and Asay, 1985) and his notion that what we generally come to think of as “personality” is actually a “defensive style” established in early childhood as a response to Core Self injury (pp. 169-196). But the scientific evidence has generally been weak, as none of this has been available for observable, cognitively focused research. Over the last few years, however, the supportive evidence has been steadily growing, though much of it may have been ignored by the traditionalists. It seems that, for obvious reasons, their agenda is unable to incorporate the findings. Although it isn’t possible to review all of the contributions, I would like to cite a smattering of the evidence that supports my intuitive view of my intuitive self.
While reading the first few chapters of Daniel Stem’s book, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (1985), I felt an odd stirring of emotion. I was at a loss to explain how a textbook, written in such a precise and academic style, could possibly trigger feelings in my belly that my head could make no sense of. Having argued for some time that child and youth care should be primarily concerned with the subjective experience of the child or young person, I was drawn immediately to his opening proposition that it was time to stop viewing pre-verbal children from an adult or clinical perspective and attempt to understand what the world of the infant might be like from the inside out. Using the traditional blend of theory and observation, Stern begins to sketch out a world in which infants are actively involved in negotiating relationships with their caregivers. Given the obvious needs for physical survival it isn’t unreasonable to assume that babies are capable of acting on their own behalf, but Stern pushes the issue well beyond this. In his analysis, they are actively involved in negotiating relationships based upon mutuality and shared “meaning,” the creation of a “we.” At the centre of this primary developmental quest is an emerging sense of Self that is constantly organizing and reorganizing experience. Hence we have a paradoxical picture of a human infant who is clearly dependent on the one hand and Self-determined on the other; a separate being, seeking not so much independence as connection. Because all of this is seen to occur in the months following birth, long before the infant is capable of forming a cognitive image of the Self or using symbolic processes, it stands to reason that this learning process is not a function of “mind– – at least in the cerebral sense. What, then, is the basis of the infant’s “curiosity”? How is it incorporated into experience? Where is such learning stored, if not in cognition? Is such information even accessible to the “mind” when cognitive abilities develop?
In grappling with these questions, my own adult mind seemed anxious to dismiss the idea of a Self-directed infant, preferring to attribute the whole thing to some notion of biological or genetic pre-programming. Yet, for some reason, this line of thought failed to satisfy my strange emotional state, a sense that something was being left unaccounted for and unexplored. In retrospect it seems that, at some level, I had already accepted the existence of my own “core” Self that I needed to recognize and explore while my mind continued to search for a convenient theory.
The general idea that the infant lives in a relational world was well articulated by the object relations theorists, and I was always fascinated by Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept (1975), which describes the child's inherent ability to know and express its own needs. But the notion of babies seeking relationships by systematically gathering, assimilating, and integrating information from their own unique subjective experience begged the question of who, or what, might be driving this process. The idea that an infant might possess a Self seemed like a far-fetched notion, yet here was Daniel Stern openly challenging his own psychoanalytic training and questioning the very foundations of cognitive and developmental theory. And there was I, struggling to bring my own body and mind into the same equation.
In recent years, the proposition that we are born with a pre-existing inner life has become standard in the field of pre- and perinatal psychology. Thanks to the contributions of people like Thomas Verny (1984), David Chamberlain (1998), and Alessandra Piontelli (1992), we are no longer surprised when infants recall events that occurred during the second and third trimester of pregnancy. The idea that the unborn child is affected by the physical and emotional states of the mother has been widely accepted, but it now seems clear that her thoughts and feelings, specifically those relating to the child, are also transmitted, received, and in some way understood. The evidence suggests that this is not a one-way system of communication. Rather than being a passive recipient in this process, the child actively speaks back to the mother, communicating its moods, its needs, its pleasures, and its discomforts. Although the mechanics of this relationship might be seen as biological, its essential nature is energetic, each party responding to shifts in the energy patterns that they create and share. In other words, mother and child are already involved in a relationship in which they are learning about themselves and each other. In this we can only assume that factors that inhibit either one’s ability to hear and respond to the other have a profound influence on Self and the quality of this relationship. Taking this a step further it also seems that the in utero child is also “aware” of messages emanating from mother’s external world, recognizing father or partner, passages read from books, musical sequences – it seems that most prenates prefer Bach to Beethoven.
Speculating about the phenomena of pre-natal and pre-verbal learning, Thomas Verny (1984) coined the term “cellular memory” to describe how early experiences might be stored in the body as a growing accumulation of sensory material. The difference between Verny’s formulations and the discoveries of the earlier body-workers lies in the manner in which such information is acquired and assimilated. Here we are not just talking about early traumas that become locked into the body but about the systematic acquisition, integration, and expression of information across a wide range of individual experience. One interesting aspect of learning at this level is that it appears to take place “holistically” rather than incrementally. Infants, for example, learn to recognize human faces and inanimate objects by grasping the whole image in one take. By the same token, they “remember” passages from Dr. Seuss and pieces of music heard prior to birth by recognizing their energetic or rhythmic qualities rather than their component parts. With research now revealing that this holistic mode of learning also provides the foundation for the acquisition of language we might begin to question our step-by-step educational methods – but that’s another story. What matters here is that we are beginning to explore a realm of human “awareness” that originates not in the mind but in the senses – developmentally speaking, feelings precede thoughts. At the centre of this process is a subjective essence that receives, organizes, and integrates internal and external information into an emergent and coherent system of “knowing.” Because this inner regulatory core is capable of initiating and sustaining actions based upon its own sense of history or continuity, it has all of the characteristics embodied in Stern's definition of Self. Taken together, they also represent the foundations of psychological health.
While all of this might not be enough for my mind to embrace my own “core” Self, it does address my opening question about being more than an idea that I carry in my head. Theoretically, of course, it’s possible to accept all of this and still contend that the child's sense of Self emerges from the impact of external stimuli upon the organism, but, if there is some form of awareness underlying the cognitive Self image, then the integration of this experience into the conscious life of the individual must be essential for integrated growth and development to occur. In other words, it would be critical for this energetic awareness and cognitive awareness to share an open channel of communication. If, on the other hand, this mindless and wordless realm expresses the essence of our being, as many have suggested (e.g., Almaas,1986; Gendlin,1978), then it must contain seeds of our authenticity, our autonomy, and our individuality. Ontologically speaking, it is the “I” within the “Me.” Because it exists beyond the mind, it is sensed rather than observed – a “presence” expressed through its own unique energetic qualities. From the inside, it is experienced as a simple “knowing,” a feeling of aliveness that translates into “I am here in this moment in all that I am – wordless and timeless.” Could this be what we bring into and take out of this world? From the outside it is recognized not through a meeting of minds, but in direct engagement with another Self. Could this be the unadorned essence of the human relationship, a place where our very existence is asserted and confirmed? If so, then each glimpse, each moment of contact would surely be worth a million words – a spiritual experience, perhaps?
To begin to examine this hypothesis, all we have to do is ask ourselves the simple question, “Do I believe that I am more than a bundle of biological urges conditioned by my environment and dependent upon others for my definitions of Self?” If the answer is “no,” then all we can do is wonder about who just asked the question. But if we hesitate, even for a moment, then the proposition of the core or essential Self is certainly worthy of our full consideration. If our answer is an unqualified “yes,” then surely this Self is worthy of our full attention. And if we don’t know how to access this inner experience and are intimidated by the prospects of Self discovery, all we really have to do is let our head take a rest and breathe into our belly – who knows who we might find there?
For me, it’s interesting to note that my mind has had to struggle through all of the above deliberations, and many more, to come to terms with what I have known all along. The real Gerry Fewster has always been there, waiting to be seen and heard – by me and by those who have become significant in my life. Conversely, the real Gerry Fewster has always been potentially available to see and hear other Selves. I’ve always known that my feelings are not simply responses to my thoughts. Developmentally my ability to feel preceded my ability to think; only my egotistical mind would attempt to deny this. Whenever I discipline my mind to back off from its constant preoccupation with survival, it comes face to face with a Gerry Fewster who needs no justification to be in this world; a Gerry Fewster whose personal worth is equal to any other; a Gerry Fewster whose experience is as valid as any other; a Gerry Fewster who seeks only to find expression and rediscover his own connectedness to others and to life in general. And finally, when my mind opens up to what my body already knows, I will be free to become all that I am.
Working with children (or anybody else
for that matter)
So, what does all this have to do with working with children? Well, at the risk of sounding redundant, I want to underscore the basic proposition, or thesis, underlying all that has been said thus far:
Regardless of the context, developmental history, and presenting problems the basic task is for the child to access, or reclaim, the inner resources of the Self and to live at the centre of his or her own life, taking ownership of personal experience and assuming responsibility for personal choices. From this perspective, the day-to-day challenges within the life of the child are not problems to be remediated; they are the opportunities through which the child may come to recognize, understand, and transform his or her emotional, cognitive, and behavioural patterns. For this to occur, the child's authentic experience needs to be seen, heard, and verified by those adults who assume parental and developmental responsibilities. In this way, the child's inner sense of Self finds expression and validation in the outside world and continues to serve as a critical point of reference through all learning and developmental tasks. This means that the significant adults must be sufficiently secure, centred, and contained within their own sense of Self to recognize the child as a unique and separate being, while offering the teaching and training essential for the child's emotional, cognitive, and social development.
For those of us who have followed traditional theories and practices in working with children, this challenge may involve a radical reappraisal of our position. In the first place it demands that we put on hold all of those time-tested techniques that attempt to re-program the child's Self image, emotional states, and behaviour based upon our beliefs about what the child should think, feel, and do. It means that we must focus upon the development of the child from the inside out and not upon her or his willingness to conform to our wishes and expectations. Whether we happen to be parents or professionals, we must take ownership of our own agenda and recognize that, however well intentioned we believe ourselves to be, we are not at the centre of that child's life. From this perspective, the only hope that has any real value is the hope that the child will eventually assume that place of centrality and become Self-directed, rather than spend his or her life chasing (or opposing) the expectations of others.
But how many of us can settle for such a simple aspiration? Like so many of my colleagues over the years, I have invested much of my life in striving to please, fix, or otherwise make things right for others in the vain hope that, in return, I will be acknowledged, accepted, and loved. Yet no amount or recognition or acclaim will ever be enough to satisfy a Self that continues to question its place in the world. And no matter how much I adorn this personal addiction with layers of professionalism, I know that somewhere beneath it all is that little kid who believed that his survival depended upon his ability to keep Mommy close by keeping Mommy happy. In my professional disguises, I came to the conclusion that my survival depended upon my apparent ability to bring about changes in the lives of my “clients.” As an agency director, I constantly reminded myself that failure to produce successful “outcomes” would result in funding cutbacks and program closures. I shudder to think of the energy I have expended on this personal treadmill. Yet even when I was worn out with the futility of it all, my rational mind cut in to remind me that, even if I did all of the personal work necessary to break free, nobody would support a professional whose only claim is the desire to see and hear his clients for who they really are.
In “reality,” very few children actually experience being seen or heard at the core Self-level: we adults cannot give to children what we ourselves have never had. How many of us can honestly say that we were truly seen and heard by our caretakers and teachers for who we really are? How many of us were actually encouraged to develop relationships based upon the full expression of our authentic Selves, saying our real yes’s and real no’s without fearing the consequences? How many of us were supported in exploring our own dreams and pursuing our own ambitions regardless of the agenda of those responsible for our upbringing? How many of us have now managed to create relationships in which we allow those closest to us to be free from our own survival fears? And how many of us can actually sit and listen to another human being without imposing our own needs to fix, change, assuage, praise, or otherwise affect the picture that is unfolding before us?
Having a boundary. This child is not an
extension of me
From the outside, a Self can only be fully acknowledged by another Self that has no agenda other than to see and to hear. Rather than bringing their Selves to their children in open curiosity and acceptance, however, many caregivers are unable to recognize and suspend their own agenda, though they may sincerely believe that they are acting in the child's best interests. To the degree that adults are unaware of their own needs and expectations, they are destined to repeat the relational legacies of their own childhood.
Working with individuals, couples, and families over the years, I’ve been fascinated by how particular configurations of these unmet needs are formed into repetitive relational patterns that are passed on from generation to generation, until someone has the courage to bring them into the light and make the commitment to break the cycle. Sometimes they are locked into particular roles played out by particular family members or emerge as relational themes, assumptions, beliefs, fears, and longings that persistently influence expectations of Self and other. In his examination of such cross-generational influences, Rosenberg (Rosenberg et al.,1985) pursues three interrelated avenues of inquiry: “Was this child wanted?”; “By whom?”; and “For what?” As these questions are addressed, so the hidden agenda embedded in the family histories of both parents are brought into awareness. By taking ownership of these patterns and attending to their own needs, it becomes possible for the parents to embark upon the painstaking task of freeing themselves, and their children, from the legacies of the past.
This is not to suggest that it is pathological for parents or caregivers to have hopes and wishes for their children – only that those hopes are about them and their needs and not about the child. Making this separation is re ferred to as having a “boundary” that delineates where one person ends and the other begins. This makes it possible for the adult to acknowledge the Self of the child while exploring the substance of her or his own Selfhood. In this way, the adult-child relationship becomes a two-way affair that engages both Selves in an active learning process.
Unless this occurs, children must learn to survive in a context of overt and covert messages that draw attention away from their own inner experience in order to learn and comply with powerful and pervasive adult agendas. As I have said before, this is not a matter of choice but a simple matter of survival. Far better to become what others would have you be than to face the terror of abandonment or the agonizing pain of rejection. Left unseen and unheard, the core Self retreats. Where this fledgling Self is openly rejected, disapproved of, or even punished, it sets about protecting itself from the pain with layers of defenses that, over time, become firmly entrenched in the structures of “personality” and the musculature of the body. Where parental needs predominate, this becomes particularly evident during the period frequently referred to as “the terrible twos.” This is the time when the child's need is to be at the centre of his or her world, to feel that sense of omnipotence that is critical for the development of personal efficacy and autonomy. Adults who have never experienced this for themselves respond to their own needs for power and control by confronting and punishing the child, and the cycle continues.
To the degree that professionals become significant in the lives of children, which they must do if a child's sense of Self is going to be affected through the encounter, the imposition of their personal and professional agenda must be carefully examined. This point is eloquently expressed by Alice Miller (1986) as she challenges her colleagues, in this case psychoanalysts, to be aware of how their theoretical models influence their perceptions of, and their responses to, their patients. Once “objectified” in this way, the subjective experience of the client is selectively taken and interpreted according to the orientation of the practitioner and the predetermined goals of “treatment.” Although child and youth care work might be less esoteric than psychoanalysis, it certainly contains many ideas, assumptions, and methodologies. Additionally, since many practitioners are intent upon developing “personal” relationships with their clients, the agenda of their own personal issues is particularly relevant, if not critical (Fewster, 1990). To revert to a previous example, I never did develop that sense of healthy narcissism in my early years, and, in my professional role, I still find myself on the brink of power struggles with kids who seem to want everything their own way. Of course, I could find theoretical justification for imposing my authority, but what I really need to examine is the possibility that both my client and I are reacting to the same unmet need. Rather than simply winning the power struggle, my real challenge is to recognize my own issue and to appreciate my client for bringing it back to my attention. Even if I continue to be “triggered,” at least I’m learning once again about boundaries – knowing where I end and the child begins. Only in this way can I bring myself to a place where I can see and hear the subjective experience of the child and support the expression of her or his core Self. This implies that I am also addressing issues of my own core Self and, as most of us know, this isn’t easy work. It takes one Self to see and hear another.
The energetic boundary
Given the notion that the core Self is essentially energetic, rather than cognitive or verbal, it follows that the boundaries of the Self must also be sensed and expressed energetically (Rand and Fewster,1997). As Self energy radiates outward it responds to the outside world by expanding and contracting, depending upon its own experience in the moment. Sometimes it will seek closeness with external objects and sometimes it will push for more space or distance. When that object happens to be another person, it will intuitively determine the desired closeness within that particular relationship at that moment in time.
Although this simple mechanism can be readily observed in the unsocialized responses of infants to those around them, it can still be experienced by adults who have retained or reclaimed access to the resources of the core Self. At this level, a boundary is experienced as a felt sense in the body – a simple “knowing” of what is too close and what is too far. When this Self-energy flows freely, and with awareness, the parameters of this Self-boundary are sensitive and flexible, constantly shifting in response to the needs of the authentic Self and the changing conditions of the external world. In this sense, boundaries are both intra-psychic and interpersonal, making it possible to have relatedness as well as autonomy and, above all, choice. With the development of cognition and language it becomes possible for a person to establish a solid sense of Self, saying the real “yes–s” and real “no–s” that make fulfilling and responsible relationships possible. Without such boundaries, there can be no sense of Self. And if there is no Self there can be no relationships.
Grounded in both the body and consciousness, boundaries allow the Self to become fully present and available to engage with others and the world in a sensitive and responsible manner. At the core level, the Self is experienced as a sense of well-being and continuity that is felt in the body. For this core Self to be nurtured and supported in its authentic expression requires the energetic presence of another Self that is contained within its own boundary. The relationship between the two Selves is defined at the contact boundary where one Self ends and the other begins.
By freely expanding and contracting their own energy field, people with effective boundaries can remain present, yet determine the degree to which the Self will actually participate in any given situation. Around such people, it is possible for others to sense this state of presence and containment within the energy field, though it is most clearly seen in the eyes. In its evolved form, this condition encompasses a state of mind that is similarly open, free of preoccupation, and fully invested in the moment. Where the intention is simply to make contact, to see and hear another Self, the mind is also free of all other agendas and strategic designs.
Where the emerging Self has been rejected or injured, the flow of Self energy becomes blocked, disconnected from bodily, emotional, and cognitive awareness. This breakdown in the integrative processes of body and mind translates into particular patterns of disease that might be experienced physically, mentally, or emotionally and expressed behaviourally. In the so-called “therapeutic relationship,” the task becomes one of inviting the core Self to come forward, moving through the blocks to transform the Self-defeating patterns into a new alignment of intellectual, emotional, and body energy, a renewed relationship with Self. For any of this to take place, she or he who offers the invitation must be truly there, energetically, emotionally, and intellectually available, fully present.
The professional challenge
While I might appear to be arguing for the abandonment of all theories and agendas in our dealings with children, a critical reader would be justified in pointing out that the above thoughts contain their own brand of theories, assumptions, and intentions. But my position is not that we should simply abandon all these things in order to bring ourselves to the direct experience of Self. Although this might be the ultimate outcome, my essential point is that we should be aware of all that we bring to the party and learn how to bracket off or suspend any intention that might stand in the way of our seeing and hearing the experience of the child. Of course, it could always be argued that any attempt to suspend a personal agenda is in itself an agenda, but, all such mind games aside, the task of being in touch with Self, while being open to the experience of another Self, remains the ultimate intimidating challenge. In this my conclusion is clear. The quest for Self-awareness and development must begin with us, the caring adults.
This is not to suggest that all who commit to working with others must first possess a fully integrated sense of Self. The important point is that, with awareness, they should be involved in their own process of Self-discovery and expression, taking full ownership of whatever they find there. They should begin with the experience of their own body-sense, using the breath to access and release the energies of the core Self. They should work to contain these energies within a boundary that can move toward contacting, without invading, another Self. They should train their own mind to respond to what is happening on the inside and the outside in the moment while placing the “client” at the centre of their attention. They should practice the art of “mirroring– – reflecting back their experience of the client free from any specific intention to affect or influence the experience of the client. And, if and when they decide to introduce some form of “intervention” in the process, they should do so with a dedicated focus upon what is occurring for both themselves and the client in the here and now. In this way, the helping relationship becomes an open process of mutual and reciprocal learning.
If all of this sounds intimidating, it is. But I know of no other way to break the pattern of professional helpers using the power of their roles to impose their “fixes” on recipient clients. The discipline and the skills involved represent, for me, the highest standards of professional practice. More importantly, they underscore what it means to be truly human and fully engaged in the human journey.
The theories or assumptions that underlie all of the above might be summarized as follows: The Self emerges through direct contact with other Selves. The core or authentic Self will find expression only through encounters with other core or authentic Selves. When such contact is not available, rejecting, or impositional, the core Self loses its place of centrality in favour of a cognitive Self that is negotiated through social interaction. Since this interaction is driven by the conscious and unconscious agenda of other negotiated Selves, it becomes dependent upon external definitions and ideals. Detached from its own core, the emerging Self-image is false or illusionary, and, to the degree that it contains an implanted “ideal,” the individual is left to evaluate herself or himself through the expectations of others. In this condition, the person remains externally motivated, chasing an ever-changing and unattainable ideal – and herein lie the seeds of neurosis, stress, depression, self-hate, and despair. Self-esteem becomes a commodity to be traded and manipulated, rather than a feeling of well-being that arises from an inner sense of “rightness” that exists somewhere at the centre of us all.
From this perspective, it is clear that the emergence and development of the Self occur within the context of primary relationships. In fact, I prefer to think of this as a single relational configuration in which the individual relates to Self, to other, and to the contextual world. Consequently, I am led to the conclusion that all of our personal issues are created in relationship and can only be addressed and transformed through relationship. In the practice of child and youth care, the personal relationship is not something to be used in the service of some predetermined outcome. In the process of growth or change, it is both the inexhaustible means and the indefinable end. By the same token, the Self of the practitioner is not a commodity to be used to fix the Self of the child. Rather, its presence offers a gentle invitation for the Self of the child to come forward and be acknowledged at the contact boundary. Where such contact occurs there is nothing else that needs to be done ... this is the work.
A final reflection
As I look back over all that I have written here, beginning with my opening statements about simplicity and complexity, I am left with a sense that, at the deepest level, the essence of Gerry Fewster has not found expression here. While my words describe how my sense of Self emerges through my connections and reflections with other Selves, there is something else – something about a connection that moves far beyond the smattering of philosophy and theory that I have used to service my beliefs. Somewhere, beyond the mind and beneath the senses, lies the simple truth of my divinity, a wordless understanding of my place within the whole. If I urge my intellect to explain this, I could tell you about chaos theory (Gleick, 1988) and demonstrate how the patterns of my life bear testimony to my inherent unpredictability and how this uncertainty is contained within the boundary of an implicate order beyond our comprehension (Bohm, 1980). I might attempt to explain my consciousness of Self and Other through quantum theory (Zohar, 1990). And I could invoke the principles of complexity (Waldrop, 1992) to show how, under ideal conditions, my tenuous Self would emerge as an “open” system with infinite potential for growth and connectedness. In other words, I would employ the principles of the “new science” to tell you more about me.
But the chances are that I will never become a scientist at the centre of my own experience, striving to bring subject and object together within a single equation. More likely I will continue with the more humble human ambition to bring my Self into an experience that, in some mysterious way, expresses all of life. For me, the recognition of my own divinity is not an elusive destination but a point of departure, a pre-existing state of knowing that every person I meet, every colleague who seeks my collaboration, and every child I work with shares that same divinity. I know that somewhere, behind the masks, the anger, the hurt, the fear, and the confusion, lies an essence that also knows what I know. And, whatever we create in this life, it is within this known state of relatedness that all of our destinies lie.
Almaas, A.H. (1986). Essence: The diamond approach to inner realization. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.
Bohm, D. (1980). Wholeness and the implicate order. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Chamberlain, D.B. (1998). Prenatal receptivity and intelligence. Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, 12, 3-4. pp. 95-117.
Feldenkrais, M. (1949). Body and mature behavior. New York: International University Press.
Fewster, G. (1990). Being in child care: A journey into self. New York: Haworth Press.
Fewster, G. (1977). The social agency. Calgary, AB: WEHH Publications.
Gendlin, E.T. (1978). Focusing. New York: Bantam.
Gleick, J. (1988). Chaos: Making a new science. New York: Penguin.
Janov, A. (1970). The primal scream. New York: Dell.
Jourard, S.M. (1968). Disclosing man to himself. New York: Van Nostrand.
Liedloff, J. (1975). The continuum concept: Allowing human behavior to work successfully. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Lowen, A. (1980). Fear of life. New York: Collier.
Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Miller, A. (1986). Thou shalt not be aware: Society’s betrayal of the child. New York: Meridian.
Ogden, P. (1997). Hakomi integrated somatics: Hands-on psychotherapy. In C. Caldwell (Ed.), Getting in touch: The guide to new body-centered therapies (pp. 153-179). Wheaton, IL: Quest.
Piontelli, A. (1992). From fetus to child: An observational and psychoanalytic study. New York: Tavistock/Routledge.
Rand, M. and Fewster, G. (1997). Self, boundaries and containment: Integrative body psychotherapy. In C. Caldwell (Ed.), Getting in touch: The guide to new body-centered therapies (pp. 71-89). Wheaton, IL: Quest.
Reich, W. (1945). Character analysis. New York: Orgone Institute Press.
Rolf, I. (1974). Structural integration. New York: Viking.
Rosenberg, J., Rand, M. and Asay, D. (1985). Body, self and soul: Sustaining integration. Atlanta: Humanics.
Schutz, W. (1973). Elements of encounter. Big Sur, CA: Joy Press.
Stern, D. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.
Verny, T.R. (1984). Working with pre- and perinatal material in psychotherapy. Pre and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 8, 3. pp. 161-185.
Waldrop, M.M. (1992). Complexity: The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Wolff, T. (1989). This boy’s life: A memoir. New York: Harper & Row.
Zohar, D. (1990). The quantum self. Human nature and consciousness defined by the new physics. New York: William Morrow.
This chapter: Fewster, G. (2001). Turning myself inside out: My theory of me. Journal of Child and Youth Care, Self-evidence: Selected writings of Gerry Fewster, 15, 4. pp. 89-108. This article was first published in the Journal of Child and Youth Care, 13, 2 (1999).