My blogging friend, the wonderful Pete from Couch Trip, is a trained psychotherapist, and given the soft spot I have for a bit of psychobabble, I read his best-of lists most attentively. This year he recommended James Masterson, and a fine recommendation it was. I have been reading his book The Search for the Real Self with great pleasure and interest. Masterson’s thesis is that we live in an age of personality disorders, rather than neuroses, and these are notoriously hard to cure. But disorders are very painful; they allow people to live outwardly successful lives but undermine their ability to deal with crises. His approach is to understand disorders as a form of false self, a mask created out of privileged parts of the personality destined to hide the intolerably vulnerable parts. Because such a manoeuvre cuts sufferers off from their real feelings and desires, it inevitably produces destructive behavioural patterns that ‘protect them from feeling ‘bad’ at the cost of a meaningful and fulfilling life.’ Given that disorders and neuroses are usually magnified versions of the sort of struggles we all engage in existentially, I thought that New Year’s Day was a good day for a spot of soul hygiene. What follows is the list Masterson creates of the ten main principles of the ‘real’ self, the indicators that we are in touch with our honest feelings and have healthy interactions with ourselves and others:
1. The capacity to experience a wide range of feelings deeply, with liveliness, vigour and spontaneity. When good things happen, we can be happy, when bad things happen, we can be sad or disappointed. In either case, we don’t block or deaden feelings but feel what is appropriate, to the extent that it is appropriate.
2. The capacity to expect appropriate entitlements. We can take accurate measurements of our skills and limitations and what we might expect from them, understanding that in time, we can ‘master our lives and achieve what is good for us.’ It means we don’t expect life to be excessively harsh or unrealistically rewarding, also, that we can expect reasonable behaviour from others.
3. The capacity for self-activation and assertion. This refers to our ability to identify goals, wishes and dreams, to recognise our unique individuality, and to do so independently of the desires and wishes of others. It means we can take steps towards achieving what we wish, and supporting and defending dreams when they come under attack.
4. Acknowledgement of self-esteem. People with a tendency to see only the bad side of things remain oblivious to both their positive qualities and their successes. In order to make it through the bad times, we have to be able to remind ourselves of our genuine worth and abilities. The world is rarely able to provide the recognition we desire, and so a certain amount of it must come from ourselves.
5. The ability to soothe painful feelings. Our real self will not allow us to wallow in misery. We will find suitable comforts and appeasements for ourselves, put problems in perspective and make sensible decisions with regard to the way we move forward.
6. The ability to make and stick to commitments. Relationships and career goals are often tough to achieve, but a solid connection with the real self allows us to commit to them and deal with obstacles and setbacks. We don’t quit too soon or doubt ourselves and others unjustly.
7. Creativity. Masterson’s definition of creativity is a bit unusual but I really like it. He talks about the way that creativity allows us to replace ‘old, familiar patterns of living and problem-solving with new and equally or more successful ones.’ As our situations and circumstances change, we can find the inner creativity to adapt and negotiate. We need to find new ways to cope with loss and to rearrange priorities, to meet new demands and find new means of expressing ourselves. Creativity also allows us to alter the way we think, throwing out unhelpful assumptions, false impressions and bad memories and replacing them with something more useful.
8. Intimacy. The capacity to live fully and sincerely in a relationship without excessive fear of abandonment or engulfment. It also indicates the ability to retain a sense of separateness and autonomy, and avoid the sort of compliance that can lead to resentment or a painful loss of self. If a relationship fails, we can hold onto the belief that another one will be possible in time.
9. The ability to be alone. In touch with our real selves we can be alone without feeling abandoned, and don’t need to rush off into manic distractions to avoid the thoughts and feelings that arise. Fundamentally, it’s the recognition that the ability to find meaning in life comes from within, and is not dependent on another person.
10. Continuity of self. No matter what happens to us, we can still feel in touch with the tensile wire that runs through the centre of the self and holds us together. This capacity allows us to acknowledge the core of the self that exists across space and time. It is, I think, what we might call the first rung on the ladder of spirituality.
Having typed all that out, I feel there should be an eleventh, something along the lines of the ability to read such a list without thinking a) ‘Oh my God, I am such a failure’ or b) ‘There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m fine thank you very much.’ May the New Year bring us all the courage to change what we can, the strength to accept what we can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference!