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The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are

Now and then, I find a gem on the internet that causes me to pause, reread, reflect, and reread again later.

What follows is one of those gems. I found it in Maria Popova's review of Neurosis and Human Growth, the second edition of a book written by Karen Horney, MD.

Karen Horney, MD (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (cropped), CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dr. Horney, now deceased, is still internationally recognized for her accomplishments in psychoanalysis. She was born in Germany at a time when women were discouraged from becoming physicians.

Fearing the Nazis, she moved to the United States, where she was instrumental in creating the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis and founding the American Journal of Psychoanalysis.

Although her ideas were not well received initially, Dr. Horney is now recognized as the successor to Freud.

The Measure of Growth

In introducing Dr. Horney’s book, Popova writes:

The measure of growth is not how much we have changed, but how harmoniously we have integrated our changes with all the selves we have been—those vessels of personhood stacked within the current self like Russian nesting dolls, not to be outgrown but to be tenderly incorporated.

Russian nesting dolls (Photo by Iza Gawrych on Unsplash)

True growth is immensely difficult precisely because it requires befriending the parts of ourselves we have rejected or forgotten—what James Baldwin so memorably called "the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are"; it requires shedding all the inauthentic personae we have put on in the course of life under the forces of convention and compulsion; it requires living amicably with who we have been to fully live into who we can be.

The question Popova forces us to ask ourselves is how successfully we have integrated all our various selves

 

into one self-realized person. And she helps us understand how important it is for our well-being to have integrated our multiple selves.

How Many Selves Are There?

Since we are seldom aware of the various selves within us, we may not know how many there actually are—like the Russian nesting dolls Popova describes.

The complementary views of my various selves are easy to identify. I can appreciate my domestic self (my love of cooking and sewing), my business self (my natural inclination to run a company rather than be an employee), and my caregiving self (my ability to tend to my mother-in-law and later my husband through illness unto death).

There's my disciplined, hardworking self. There's also the self who courageously faced significant change, such as moving to France at age eighty despite being newly widowed. That self had confidence in her ability to cope with whatever life threw her. And there’s my writer self, the person who's written hundreds of articles and four books.

 

But those selves are not embarrassing to disclose. What about the other selves? What about the insecure self who wakes up at three in the morning and wonders if she's wasted her life and if it's too late to do anything about it? Or the lazy self who finds learning a language too much work? Or the cruel self who enjoys seeing an enemy get their due? Or the self-indulgent self who has too many clothes in the closet?

I could describe a few dozen more not-so-flattering selves, but I'll spare readers and myself the pain of revealing them.

How Do We Integrate Our Various Selves?

To realize our potential, we must harmoniously integrate our various selves. But where do we begin?

I'm not a psychoanalyst, but even as a layperson, I am sure that the starting point is to recognize the existence of the various selves, including the ones we prefer not to claim.

The next step, I assume, would be to examine the roles these various selves have played at different stages of

 

our lives. And we must do so tenderly and compassionately while being ruthlessly honest.

Danger Lurking

There's danger lurking in this kind of self-examination and integration of selves. Depending upon one's source, Greek philosopher Plutarch or German psychoanalyst Otto Rank is credited with saying: "What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality."

Danger sign (Photo by Raúl Nájera on Unsplash)

Integration of selves has practical, real-life implications; it isn't a theoretical experiment on our psyche. The harmonious integration will alter our experience of life.

A Fascinating If Not Humbling Journey

Our various selves—yours and mine—are woven tapestries made from colored threads of good and evil, thoughtfulness and cruelty, generosity and selfishness.

To be human is to be flawed, I remind myself. My priorities may change. The way I relate to people may change. I may choose how I spend money or my remaining time. But I also remind myself that I don't need to be perfect to be whole.

Perhaps these reassuring thoughts will give me the courage to recognize and identify my various selves, with their strengths and shortcomings, at different stages of my life.

Autobiographical Fiction Serves Me Well

In retrospect, I attempted to do this by writing a quartet of autobiographical fiction books. From Blackbird, where I examine the childhood selves of Jane Bertram, to My Mother's Daughter, where my various selves experiment with adulthood, I reveal multiple and, at times, conflicting selves.

 

My third book, A Perfect Mother, attempts to resolve the shortcomings of the various selves of Jane Bertram, as well as those of her mother. And my fourth book, The First and Last Lesson, attempts to integrate all of the heroine's selves into a coherent, harmonious whole.

Will I Achieve Self-Realization?

Who knows? In the process of writing the quartet, I've become happier. And if a more joyful daily life experience is the litmus test of wholeness and self-realization, at least I've made considerable progress in that direction.

(Cover photo of James Baldwin by Europeana on Unsplash)