This post was original a New Existentialists blog by Dr. Louis Hoffman posted at https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/10-01-14/. It is reposted here in its entirety.
“Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced.” –James Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room, 1956/1984)
“I am going to therapy [or on a spiritual quest] to find myself.” Phrases of this sort are common in the folklore and history of psychotherapy, particularly humanistic, existential, and other depth psychotherapies. I have even heard many therapists say this is a good reason for entering therapy as well as others who use the idea of “finding oneself” as a way of distinguishing depth psychotherapy from the solution-focused therapies. While the idea of going to therapy to find oneself may not be as popular as it was in the 60s and 70s, this idea continues through contemporary times. Given it is sometimes associated with existential and humanistic psychology, it is good to consider its implications.
The Meaning of “Finding Oneself”
The idea of trying to find oneself suggests that there is some essential self that lies outside of one’s awareness or, at the very least, some essential nature that one is trying to discover. I consider both options below.
Finding One’s Essential Self
The essential self in this context is a typically an idealized self that, by the very idealization, remains elusive if not a burden through serving as a constant reminder of one’s inability to measure up to this ideal. Yet, the vision of the search and journey toward finding oneself is often highly romanticized. Once this self is found, it is assumed that peace and happiness will come with it.
If considered in the context of humanistic psychology, it is often purported that the self is essentially good. Some humanistic perspectives can contribute to this idealization; however, this tends more common with “pop psychology” versions of humanistic psychology (see Hoffman & Rubin, 2013). Existential psychology tends to place more of an emphasis upon the paradoxical nature of being human, including the potential for good as well as the potential for evil (Hoffman, Lopez, & Moats, 2013). This suggests that any self would likely be different from the idealized self that may initiate or inspire the search.
Deeper issues lie in the assumption that there is some essential self to be found. At quick glance, it may seem that much of existential and humanistic psychology is based upon the idea of an essential self. After all, we often talk about the idea of authenticity, which is sometimes conceived of being connected to an essential self. Sometimes we talk of soul, and soul is frequently conceived of as that essential self, though not necessarily so. The soul, in particular, can be conceived as an essential self that may go beyond the bounds of biology in some spiritual, religious, and/or transpersonal perspectives.
The self, and whether there is an essential self, also has important religious, spiritual, and cultural implications. Hoffman, Stewart, Warren, and Meek (2014) maintain that the idea of the self is socially constructed with different constructions in different theories, religions, and cultures. We refer to different “myths of self” to reflect these different conceptions and maintain that there is no one understanding of the self that is “healthiest” for all people. While the nature of the self and existence of an essential self may long be debated by philosophers, theologians, and psychologists, in the more practical, lived experience, different understandings of the self have a place.
Hoffman and colleagues (2014) further suggest that there can be problems with imposing a view of the self upon people. For example, it can be very problematic and counterproductive from a mental health perspective to impose a Western conception of the self upon someone from an Eastern culture, particularly individuals holding certain spiritual perspectives about the self.
Although it may be prudent to be cautious about imposing a particular view of self, it may at the same time be wise to be skeptical about seeking an essential self. As a therapist, I have had clients begin therapy saying that they want to find themselves. When this occurs, I believe it is important for me to be upfront with them in saying that I am not sure that this is a realistic therapy goal. Even if such a self exists, I am not sure it can be found. Furthermore, I worry that seeking an essential self that is believed to innately exist can, at times, work against a client’s agency and taking responsibility for themselves and who they become.
When clients present with the desire to find oneself, I will say that I do believe gaining a better understanding of oneself is important and something for which I can offer help. I also will typically add that I believe that there are aspects of oneself that can be changed or are under the influence of the individual. It is not necessary that the client and I agree about the nature or definition of the self or engage in a philosophical discussion about this; however, I think it is important that we be honest in our conversations relevant to this topic, especially if it is connected to their reason for entering therapy. At times, if beliefs are held rigidly enough, it may signify that we are not a good fit to work together. However, I find most of the time that there are ways we can work together while honoring these differences.
Finding One’s Nature
Seeking to discover one’s nature is different than seeking an essential self. It is not searching for something as specific. Instead, it could be conceived as seeking an understanding of the human condition as well as how one personally relates to or situates oneself in connection with the human condition. This weaves together the social and personal with the nature of being human. I believe this is part of what Baldwin is getting at when he states in the quote from the beginning of this article that finding oneself, “does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced.” This suggests that there is something missing in one’s awareness or experience that is being sought rather than seeking the discovery of some essential self.
Existential and humanistic psychology both tend to purport that human nature is connected to potential and an innate growth orientation. In other words, there is something good in human nature. However, existential in particular as well as many humanistic viewpoints also acknowledge that there is innate limitation (i.e., finiteness) that is part of being human, or even the potential for destructiveness and/or evil. Awareness of both potentials can be understood as an important aspect of living in the fullness of responsibility (Hoffman et al., 2013).
The search to find how one is situated in connection to their human nature is a journey that most likely does not have a definitive destination. Yet, the search can still be valuable, and maybe more valuable, if one recognizes that one may never reach the end, or, if one does, they may not realize it.
An existential perspective is better represented as a dual process of seeking self-understanding or self-awareness and creating oneself. This is part of what Rollo May (1981) was pointing toward with his conception of freedom and destiny. There are aspects of what it means to be human (i.e., human nature) and what it means to be oneself (our personal nature, including our genes, our family, our culture, etc.) that cannot be controlled. These comprise our destiny that we cannot choose. However, we are also free. May believed that even if our freedom was minuscule in comparison to our destiny, it still makes things quite interesting. In this conception, finding oneself is also, at least to some degree, creating oneself. No matter how small the creating aspect may be, it is the one for which we have the most responsibility and the one that makes the journey to “finding” oneself the most interesting. May’s conception could be integrated with the idea of myths of self. This would suggest that there are many different conceptions of the self that can be considered valid or healthy; however, within each of them there is some degree of freedom and destiny.
The idea of “finding oneself” has a long and complicated history in psychotherapy. It is a process often misunderstood, and it may even misrepresent what psychotherapy is about. This is particularly true within an existential and humanistic paradigm. Yet, the self-discovery process, especially when combined with the recognition that we also play a role in creating who we are to become, is an exhilarating and valuable journey.
Baldwin, J. (1984). Giovanni’s room. New York, NY: Vintage. (Original work published in 1956)
Hoffman, L., Lopez, A., & Moats, M. (2013). Humanistic psychology and self-acceptance. In M. Bernard (Ed.), The strength of self-acceptance: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 3-17). New York: NY: Springer.
Hoffman, L. & Rubin, S. (2013, December 25). Rediscovering humanistic psychology: Understanding its complicated history. [Review of Encountering America: Humanistic psychology, sixties culture, & the shaping of the modern self]. PsycCRITIQUES-Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, 58(no. 50). doi 10.1037/a0034938.
Hoffman, L., Stewart, S., Warren, D., & Meek, L. (2014). Toward a sustainable myth of self: An existential response to the postmodern condition. In K. J. Schneider, J. F. Pierson & J. F. T. Bugental (Eds.), The handbook of humanistic psychology: Theory, research, and practice (2nd edition; pp. 105-133). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
May, R. (1981). Freedom and destiny. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
— Louis Hoffman