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Gendlin, E.T. (1985). Some notes on the "self." The Focusing Folio, 4(4), 137-151. From

[Page 137]

Some Notes on the "Self"

Eugene T Gendlin
University of Chicago

Our concepts of the human self are too simple, even simplistic. In this paper I will be making some distinctions.

Let me begin with four distinctions within the Freudian concept of "ego-strength." Later I will make further distinctions.

distinctions within "ego-strength":

Ego-strength has sometimes meant the imposition of certain categories in the formation of experience, so that an intricacy exceeding them would not form in awareness.

A second meaning of ego-strength is retaining control of non-ego experience in awareness.

Thirdly, endlessly complexity can obstruct action. One can differentiate further and further, and find endless richness. That can lead to isolation, as we saw. One can become immobilized by subtle needs which no real situation or person seem to satisfy. "Ego-strength" can mean the capacity to cut through the complexity, to choose, to act and interact.

A fourth kind is involved for the dialogue-steps we call "focusing."

Here, again, are these four different capacities:

  • a) Closing, no aware intricate experience; (What Freud called "the pathology of everyday life" usually remains unconscious).
  • b) Imposing order upon aware intricate experience. It forms in awareness, but it is denigrated as "unrealistic" when in conflict with the usual categories.
  • c) Choice. Ego and intricate experience both maintain themselves. The person can choose how and when to move with either.
  • d) Many steps of dialogue, both ego and intricate experience contribute to change-steps.
[Page 138]

In orthodox psychoanalytic theory a healthy ego prevents intricate experience from coming to awareness. That is a), the closing type.

More recently the term "regression in the service of the ego" was added. That is ego-function b). The term "regression" says that non-ego experience is considered only as a return to infantile events. It is said that an artist has non-ego experience in awareness, but then imposes artistic order upon it. It is said that in therapy, also, one invites non-ego experience, but only to impose ego order on it more effectively.

Ego-strength c) is the capacity to choose. Many people are currently between b) and c). They often denigrate their intricate experience from the ego standpoint. But sometimes they respect and act from intricate experience.

I consider type d) optimal. In focusing, ego-strength means an active interaction with intricate experience, not just letting it flow, nor just one choice, one step. Many steps ensue. Ego and intricacy both contribute to the steps.

how focusing differs from just having intricate experience:

Many kinds of intricate experience exist today. The once odd experiences of poets and mystics have become common. Just consider imagery. For twenty-five centuries the theory of imagery was that it is some rearrangement of external perceptions. Of course it was always obvious to some people, that what comes in imagery is vastly richer, and not reducible to external perception.

Visual imagery is only one dimension. More important is direct sensing of the body. There are a great many new ways of working with the physical body, which show that it is vastly more than a machine, and more than just drives and emotions.

We live every situation with the body—not only by the well-known emotional "reactions" such as glad, sad, scared, or angry, but with complex, kinaesthetic sensing in each situation. Many people now honor the physical sense of a situation as being more than their ego notions.

[Page 139]

But my concern here goes further than just respecting both ego and intricate experience. Between them there can be a dialogue with many steps. When the organism "talks back" it makes a bit of change and novelty at each step.

characteristics of focusing steps:

This dialogue of many steps is called "focusing." At each step there is, again, a fresh body-sense. Although indefinable and unclear, again, each time, one can sense that it is the body-sense of that situation or concern, the one being worked on. Or, if not, one can sense that it is not.

The focusing process can occur in any setting, not just psychotherapy. These steps can occur with practical or intellectual work, aesthetic creation,—anything.

When psychotherapy goes well, people spend time sensing something they cannot at first define. What they just said seems true—and yet there is an odd, unclear sense that differs from it. Although true in itself, what they just said is not true of this sense. But, then, what would be right to say? What would speak for this unclear sense? They don't know.

Then it is as if this unclear sense suddenly "comes into focus." It shifts, opens. One has a sense of knowing, now, what it is. Even so, there may not yet be a way to say it. It might take another minute for new phrases to form.

Although such a step seems deeply true, soon a new "edge," a new felt sense comes, an unclear sensing. When that, too, opens, what had seemed so true may now be contradicted. Logically the next step can contradict the previous. The steps make sense, but in a non-logical way.

In the following excerpt, please note this sort of progression, each step changing the previous content. And also, please notice how experience is much more intricate (and more realistic) than the usual social vocabulary and categories.

Note the silence between each two steps. (I write it: ".....")

[Page 140]

I've been holding him off. But he is really very special, and nobody's perfect. I'm impossibly demanding. It confuses me. .....

(silence) ..... He says he cares about me, and I know he does, but I also doubt it. Uhm .....

(silence) ..... (sigh) No, he cares. I don't doubt that. I see it in his eyes. When I pull back even a little, he looks so hurt. It's me, I have trouble letting someone care about me. .....

(silence) ..... (sigh) It's not the caring, that gives me trouble. It's that when someone cares for me, then I have to get into this confusing feeling. .....

(silence) ..... He says he cares about me and what I need. And he wants us to be together. But it seems like he doesn't want to see what's true, what isn't working in our relationship. And it is mostly this not wanting to see, which is what's not working. But if he doesn't care about that, then it seems like he doesn't really cares about me-me. It's like he wants me, but only if I'm quiet and feel weird, like not-me. So he doesn't care about whether our connection is real or not. But it makes me feel crazy. Does it sound crazy to you?

Therapist: Would it feel better if he said those things separately, something like: "I want you for me. I try to care about what's good for you, and I want to think I do. I'm scared of seeing anything about us, or about myself, that would get in the way?

Yes, it would feel better if he said that.

[Page 141]

What comes in these steps cannot be said in the usual social vocabulary. ("He doesn't want to see what isn't working . . . And it is mostly his not wanting to see, which is what's not working." "He doesn't care about me-me.") It is more intricate than the usual social categories. Isn't it also more realistic? It may well be a better predictor of what will happen in their marriage, if it does not change in some way.

In this example one could say that the ego is not fully formed (the feeling of "not-me.") Someone might say: If she had a "healthy ego," she would not be enmeshed in this complexity. With a healthy ego she would stand by her first statement, in which she imposed the common social form. She knows "nobody's perfect." If she cannot impose her ego's dictum, and live the non-mutuality, it must be ego-weakness. The experiential complexity interferes with social bonding. And, no doubt it includes infantile elements, as everyone's experience does.

Using a-c above, one might say that her ego isn't strong enough to prevent not-me experience from happening, or to impose form upon it, or to choose to move past it.

But here is the other side of the question:

Today women say that the traditional women's role does demand "being not-me." Should she give in to the pull she describes? Recently, women have become much more aware and critical of this common social training: "If a man cares for me, I must do whatever he wants."

There must always have been some women who had more intricate, more realistic perceptions even in ages when most people identified with the social forms. Was that only self-deception?

When we say that this intricacy was there in those more traditional times, the word "was" works in an odd way. Now we say it "was" there, then. But, then, it was not there as it. Aware experience is a different process than what was. Binding women's feet was oppressive then, but did not quite mean what it would, if done today. It was not quite the same intricacy, covered up. But there was intricacy then, which was covered up.

Similarly, at each new focusing step, we say "this is what the problem really "was." But here the word "was" makes a new time-scheme. There are now two pasts. In addition to what we remember, behind us, on the linear [Page 142] time line, there is a second past: what we now say "it" "was."

So we have to let the word "was" define itself from how it works. I will return to this way words can work.

There were always some people who experienced an intricacy and rejected official forms, overtly or silently. They were special people, certainly not less developed, but not "normal."

This now common experience is, indeed, an incompleteness of the old type of ego, (type a). But we are at the start of a new, more intricate and more realistic development.

the body and language:

As philosophers we say that language is implicit in any experience.

How is seemingly wordless experience possible, if this philosophical insight is right? Experience comes about in a languaged world and always has language implicit in it.

It does, but the body "talks back" with more intricacy than common language and social arrangements.

When therapy is working, people very often have a directly experienced "sense" for which there are, as yet, no words. It is a hallmark of ongoing therapy which later shows successful outcomes.

Not only therapy shows this. Pilots fly "by the seat of their pants." Poets and artists work from a sense of what has not yet formed. Among business people it is well known that the best decisions are made by those who can size up a situation by the feel of it. Those who have this talent are admired as having "the business instinct." The body knows, and can create, more realistic intricacy than can be thought or said in extant forms.

When there is a problem, we cannot just impose a solution. The thought-forms we already know don't help by themselves. They need to interact with the more intricate sense of the situation. This sense is the specific and unique uneasiness of just this aspect of just this situation. But, at first it is only a murky discomfort. And even when something does emerge, that is only one step. Many people stop there. But [Page 143] more steps can come.

How do such steps come? From the body. But how can a body "talk back" with more intricate steps than our cognitions could make?

We are used to a mechanical view, as if the body had no order of its own.

The utter variety of human cultures made it seem that the body we all share had no behavior patterns of its own. Since human behavior is culturally various, if you abstract the variety away, no behavior seems left at all.

Today that view can no longer be held. Every animal species has been found to have unlearned environmental interaction patterns, such as food-search, nest-building, mating dances, and so on.

Culture and social arrangements elaborate the organism, but are never all its order.

Therefore the body can "talk back" more intricately than the common phrases and social forms.

When I say "the body talks back," the word "body" works differently. The word has to be grasped from the "talking back."

"The body" must be thought of in a different (but not unfamiliar) way: We live most of life through kinaesthetic body-sensing. We walk into a room and know who is there and what to do. We have to think few things in explicit separable forms. The body-sense of our social context is much more often what guides us.

Some people think of culture and language as if they were forms that are "encoded," stamped in. Language-acquisition research used to be in terms of encoding. Just now it is changing that assumption. (Bickhard, M. H., Cognition, Convention, and Communication. N.Y.: Praeger, 1980.) It is now said that social interaction contexts precede language and determine its acquisition. In the newer approaches the word "social" works precisely for what are not encodable forms, but various body-behavioral interactions. These give language its functional organization. Language cannot consist only of encodable forms. It has the different kind of "order" that body-behavior-interaction has. That is what allows so much creativity in language.

You can see this, if you notice how words create meaning as they work [Page 144] in new sentences. Words are not defined forms, applied and stamped in. Their old definitions play a role, but words work beyond definitions.

Language is implicit in what one cannot say. The body knows the language and the situation. That is how one knows that what one can say is wrong. One is stuck until, from the body-sense, new phrasings emerge. It shows that the body lives the language, and can alter and augment it.

During the time one cannot say, the newly working phrases have not yet emerged. When they come, they emerge changed.

All understanding is to some degree bodily sentient. As you follow any sentence you sense the point being made, long before it is made. Without that, you wouldn't get the point when it comes. And when you've got it, even then the point is not just the words. If you can only repeat the words, we know you didn't get the point. Understanding the point is a lot like those silences, in therapy, from which focusing steps come. You understand by having a ...... From this "blank" which is not blank, you could say quite a lot more than the words.

We think in these .....'s. We might have to read something over and over, till we say we "have it," we "get" the point, but then our further thinking is with .....

These words, "body." "language," "knows," "says," "sense," "situation," "step," all work freshly here by "coming" here. So you "follow" me here, as my word "follow" makes this kind of sense. And many more words could come in such a fresh way, if we went on to say more about body, situations, and language.

Now someone may object: Very well—let language and culture be a creative interactional organismic functioning, rather than formed forms. But such a functional system would even more foster the illusion of being one's own source, while remaining within unconscious controls. For example, Foucault views the self as always unknowingly controlled by social practices.

To what extent do the steps of this process "remain within" the given context of control, and to what extent do they exceed it?

But "exceeding" and "remaining within" are not a simple either/or. There are different kinds of "remaining within."

Whatever "remain within" might mean for our process, it cannot mean [Page 145] "logically within." Such a step cannot be deduced from the previous. It is not analytically implied or made by the forms in the previous step. Rather, the step changes the forms from which one would have tried to deduce or explain it.

The steps of the focusing process violate local continuity. We can say they are "discontinuous." Or, we can say the steps do follow with some sort of continuity. You follow them, and you follow my saying that. What sort of "continuity" do you follow? The word "follow" works newly, in this way. This "continuity" and "discontinuity" is made by these steps.

Since, at each step, the whole situation can change, we see:

A human situation or problem is not an "it" like a thing, or a thought. Neither is that ..... an entity, an "it" that has only one definition. At each step "it" truly reveals itself, and yet that is only a step to something further.

In a small step the forms change, but not exactly into different forms. They change how they sit, their quality, their implicit role, how they work ... again the words about such steps define themselves from how they follow here about such steps.

But different words don't say the same thing. Each brings its old uses and works differently in new sayings.

Such steps cannot be explained from how you know yourself. You are not a subjective entity, a self-known thing with one set of definitions. Rather, the steps change that self-known person.

Nor can the steps be explained by an unconscious continuity because these steps change the unconscious as well. What emerges, as people say, "from the unconscious," was not there as that datum, before. The coming of a datum changes the whole.

The words "steps" and "progression" are not explained by one time-scheme. These steps make more intricate kinds of time. For example, when a step comes, we say "Now I know what the trouble was." But here the word "was" works in a way that fits no usual time scheme.

Rather than subsuming these steps under our old notions of freedom or control, let them first show their own, intricate ways. Let us not settle for one overall pattern of control. Perhaps there are many patterns, not just one notion of freedom and one notion of control.

[Page 146]

The progression of steps is experienced as "more truly me" than any single content or step. Although I say each time that this, now, is truly what "it" is, or what "I" am, the progression continues. The steps of self-response can seem more truly myself, than any content.

We will not explain the steps with some one notion or continuous scheme, since the steps change all such schemes and continuities.

So we will also not impose such an artificial scheme-continuity on "the" self.

patterns of "the self":

We reject the old notion of one internal, subjective self-thing, which has the thing-continuity of a brick or a stone.

But, in rejecting this one thing, have I substituted two subjects, two self-things?

Two systems do seem to be operating in what I said so far: ego and intricate body-experience. Only both of them make a focusing-step in which they both change. Separated, the body-sense was only a murky physical discomfort. Taken separately the thought-content is each time only the old categories helplessly unable to change actual living.

Both are social realities, the forms and the more intricate bodily living.

But which one is my self, the one that does the finding out about myself, or the found-out object which I say "is me," when it comes? Or is "dialogue" an old-fashioned dialectic between the two?

One man complained about feeling a tension all the time. I said "Welcome the tension in, so it can be here. Perhaps it will open and show what it is." He tried. "How can I welcome it? I hate it!" He tried again to welcome it. There was a long silence. Then he said: "When I welcome it, it eases and dissolves."

That shows he wasn't two separate selves.

The scheme of a subject-knower and an object-known doesn't get at the self very well. The orthodox notion of knowing splits knower and object. In a dialectical scheme knower and known turn into each other. That is [Page 147] somewhat more sophisticated, since it splits-and-reunites knower and known.

People say "this is me." The "I" can identify itself with what it finds. But it is wrong and careless to follow dialectical logic, and say that by identifying with the content, the "I" turns into the content it finds.

Another pattern is the self that relates "to itself." Heidegger, Sartre, and Foucault all use it. Heidegger said that humans can choose to be what they already are, or they can avoid it. That is a somewhat subtler scheme than a single subjective self-thing, or two dialoguing with each other as if separate.

But when we examine therapy, focusing, poetry, and even just ordinary language-use, these schemes of the self seem absurdly simple.

Obviously "the self" is at least as complex as what we find and see all the time. Why try for a simpler scheme?

And why one scheme? We can't expect one scheme to stay logically consistent about non-logical process-steps. Instead, let us also study the process of scheme-making, moving with many schemes. The self cannot be simpler than how words work in logically irreconcilable new ways.

Of course, it has long been known that selves are complex, but that was thought to be psychology. In a psychological theory, for example the psychoanalytic theory, all the terms have certain assumptions. We have added certain distinctions within that theory. The theory can now be used to ask about intricate experience. But we did not change the kind of concepts the theory uses.

Philosophy examines assumptions in a different way. It examines not so much what the theory says about types of human, infants, and so on. Rather, it hits at the type of concept being used, for example the type which makes everything into entities, brick-like things. Freudian concepts render mental contents as if they sit in us like buried things. Philosophically, we cannot remain satisfied with our two that dialogue with each other, either.

In doing the philosophical job, one uses an alternative scheme, a better one, perhaps, but still a scheme. For example, Hegel's dialectical poles that turn into each other are a subtler scheme, than the knower/known split. Or, Heidegger's philosophy criticizes inner brick-like entities, [Page 148] and replaces them with self-relating: In choosing what one is and has to be, one is being in a further way. Here the words "is" and "be" work in a more complex pattern than the simple "is" of a brick. In his later years, Heidegger emphasized "letting be." For him, as for us, what one chooses or lets be is more than cognitive.

Now I am saying that such philosophical schemes are themselves still simplistic, although they do have the philosophical function of undercutting more simplistic ones.

The self shows many patterns subtler than the usual kinds of schemes. I propose that we do not reduce these patterns to simpler ones, but let them stand, and let each function philosophically to undercut the others.

Even considering only the focusing steps, we see more complex patterns than Heidegger's. One may choose to be, refuse, or let be "what one already is" in many ways. Each way lets the words "choose" or "refuse" work differently. So we are incorrect to speak as if there were one pattern that holds across, common to them all.

Nor is such choosing all in one step. "What one is and has to be" comes freshly again at each step. Sometimes neither choice nor "letting be" is possible, only further steps.

In the pattern: "the self relates to itself" the whole puzzle is packed into the word "relates," as if it had one meaning that holds across.

Are there then many selves with nothing unifying them? Oh no, there is one self; that is always there, too. But this is not because we impose the simple habitual scheme of a single "something" that lasts through observer-time, like a brick. The usual time-space continuity requires an observer, as in physics. That scheme of time does not determine the self—it depends on an assumed, abstracted self, "the observer." Don't reduce the self to one logical continuity.

I have been criticizing three schemes: The first was Freud's type, where thing-like entities are set up, and remain continuously distinct: the id, the ego, the super-ego. The second is the dialectical, where they turn into each other. The third is the scheme called "relates to itself," which is at least more than a content, and more than cognitively defined.

[Page 149]

I have already said that the "I" which looks or finds, does not turn into the content that arises. Sometimes the I says: "that's really me." But the "I" has no content; it is always again there, and cannot really "change" to "be" the content.

Freud did not make that distinction. He identified the "I" with the content of the social content of the ego. (The Latin word "ego" was the English translator's contribution. Freud's work for the "ego" is das Ich, the "I.") Thereby he followed the usual, traditional people who do take the social content for themselves. He identified the (social) content with the I-person who looks.

He rightly pointed out that "the ego" can identify—especially with a parent—but also with many other things in many ways. The gazer has a great capacity to identify with various people, and with various contents of experience. That very fact tells us that theory should not lump the gazer in with content.

There are also so-called "part-selves" which seem as if they were people inside people. They organize speech and action, and can feel like "me." The I-person can "identify" with many of them. (But though the words are similar, split-personality is another condition.)

Identifying is a basic human process, but just therefore our theory must not identify this toward simplified self-things.

The obvious pattern is already more complex than any of the concepts I looked at, so far. (Perhaps Levinas is talking about this contentless gazer. I am not sure.)

We were all taught that infants don't develop into people before the age of one or two. It isn't so. In contrast to developmental theory, the newer research studies show the newborn with much more perceptual and response capacity. The infant is a person right from the start. Boukydis (Focusing Folio, Vol. 4-1) works with infants. In response to a question I asked him, he said: I have studied more than two hundred newborns, including many who were born prematurely at seven months, and "I was always seriously regarded."

At least this one researcher, experienced with so many infants, senses himself in interaction with a person looking. The statement about newborns at seven months also tells us that infants are persons long before most of [Page 150] them emerge from the birth canal. Of course, many people recall prenatal experiences.

The sensitive worker with the aged knows the same thing. One of them said of "senile" people: "If you respond to them in a certain way, they come out. Then they're not senile."

Knowing this, made me able to work with a "crazy" or mute patient. I would sit silently much of the time, but also talk sometimes, without any response from the patient. Hospital staff, observing, would make snide comments about both of us. Later, such patients would say something like: "Why were you so shy, then? Why didn't you say more? Didn't you know that helped?"

Freud said it as well:

. . . one learns from patients after their recovery, that at the time in some corner of their minds, as they express it, there was a normal person hidden, who watched the hubbub of the illness go past . . . (OP p. 115)

This shows that he didn't miss the one who looks, but he did call that one the same as that ego which is the organization of content.

The one who is there, and can gaze at me, is really all I care about. Anything else seems valuable only in relation to that one.

But that one can feel thin, floating, empty, nearly not there—that is how people often describe themselves prior to "getting in touch with their feelings." So feelings and body-sense are in some way vital, too.

At least we can let the complexity stand. The various patterns we find can philosophically undercut each other.

How does a pattern philosophically undercut another? How can we avoid making the self into a continuous brick-like thing?

For example, we might be tempted to say that the gazer is also the one that can identify with something. But gazing and identifying are two different patterns. We would have to continue the one artificially into the other, giving it the continuity of a thing. We can try out thinking that, but why impose it?

Another example: How my words worked, just now, is not fixed. The [Page 151] words "is always there" work another way, when I tell you that many people (in quite ordinary states) are "not there", not reachable through their eyes. They don't speak as that self. Instead, they often say whatever is convenient. As person "who is there" (which now says the person is reachable just now) can get very hurt, imagining that others are always reachably there. The horrible things people say and do are incomprehensibly hurtful that way. It's easy if you realize their saying and doing is superficial, and they are not reachably there.

Don't take this seeming contradiction as just about people. I am concerned with undercutting my scheme. When I say: "the one who is always there," that one seems to have the scheme of a thing, brick, or atom—a scheme of continuity through time. If I say about another self-aspect: "This one is the same as that one," then I continue that one into this next aspect, as if it were a same thing defined by my space and time scheme. I am refusing to make the scheme provide this artificial continuity. The self of "superficial vs. reachably there" cannot be made continuous with the one who is "always there."

Why reduce the self's more intricate patterns to a single continuity only slightly more intricate than a stone's?

Is the self one, or many? We cannot answer that except in specific respects. For example, "one" may mean that some action is sometimes right with all the multiplicity at once. "One" and "many" mean complex patterns of self, not many selves.

There is not one scheme of the self.

Is that dismaying? But why not grant the human self its intricacy? To do that is not less than a scheme. We don't just say vaguely that the self is beyond schemes. Rather, we let each of its ways stand. We do not impose a scheme from one of its ways on the others.

Then we can study its many kinds of processes, many kinds of steps.

Please send me your comments, suggestions, and mark spots that are unclear.

ŠEugene T. Gendlin

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  • Biographic Note: Eugene T. Gendlin is a seminal American philosopher and psychologist. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and taught there from 1963 to 1995. His philosophical work is concerned especially with the relationship between logic and implicit intricacy. Philosophy books include Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Language Beyond Post-Modernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin's Philosophy edited by David Michael Levin, (fourteen commentaries and Gendlin’s replies), and A Process Model. There is a world wide network of applications and practices ( stemming from this philosophy. Gendlin has been honored three times by the American Psychological Association for his development of Experiential Psychotherapy. He was a founder and editor for many years of the Association’s Clinical Division Journal, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. His book Focusing has sold over half a million copies and has appeared in seventeen languages. His psychology-related books are Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams and Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy.
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