4 Foundational Keys to Self-Reflective Development

Research and theory are revealing factors that hold us back—and can free us.

Posted Jan 24, 2021

"[F]or a living creature to have evolved rich capabilities of perception and categorization but to be constitutionally incapable of focusing any of that apparatus onto itself would be highly anomalous. Its selective neglect would be pathological, and would threaten its survival" I Am A Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter

The most captivating psych topics share core qualities that we are just beginning to understand. What overlap is there among personality difficulties, relationship challenges, addictions and compulsions, body issues, self-care and personal development, and trauma, resilience, depression, and anxiety?

Underlying psychological factors are often easier to discern in others than oneself, easier to understanding intellectually than experience viscerally; they tend to be unconscious or hidden within emotional and developmental blind spots. Emerging research sheds light on the underlying complex mental factors shaping developmental experience, adult identity and well-being, and related areas of interest.

Here, we look at four interconnected foundational concepts useful for making sense of knotty problems.1

Four on the floor

1. Dissociation: Dissociation is fairly common but often missed, representing internal disconnectedness which plays out in identity and relations with others. Three basic forms of dissociation are described: “a loss of continuity of subjective experience and unwanted intrusions into awareness and behavior,” “an inability to access information or control mental functions,” and/or “a sense of experiential disconnectedness.” (Cardena and Carlson, in Paetzold and Rholes, 2021). Dissociation can be estimated using tools such as the 28-item Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES).

In smaller doses, dissociation is useful, a functional mental ability, allowing us, for instance, to temporarily suppress reactions or tune out distraction to focus; something we all experience to some extent. While self-protective, especially with trauma, stronger dissociation comes at a cost. Dissociation can interfere with sense of self, discussed below, resulting in low integration between identity and memory, covertly leading into scattered existence.

According to new research, dissociation affects how childhood experiences play out in adulthood. Paetzold and Rholes found that dissociation was more likely in adults with negative outcomes from childhood abuse and neglect, relating to depression, anxiety, and disorganized attachments (see below).

Şar and Türk-Kurtça (2021) found that dissociation was connected with childhood maltreatment and adult narcissism, contributing to “dissociative depression” a form of treatment-resistant depression grounded in unrecognized trauma and dissociation. Physical abuse was associated with grandiose narcissism and adult dissociation, while vulnerable narcissism correlated with low emotional security in caregiver relationships, emotional neglect and psychological abuse, and depression.

Dissociation may help transform more painful vulnerable narcissism into grandiose narcissism through “moderation of the unbearable interpersonal reality”.

2. Self-Concept Clarity (SCC): Self-concept clarity captures key aspects of how we perceive our own identity (see below for a full list of SCC elements2), comprising our overall sense of who we are. Şar and Türk-Kurtça note that, “Ideally, an individual’s overall self-concept should be integrated, so that whether aligned with reality or not, it is internally consistent or coherent.” Notably, one can have high SCC but hold dysfunctional, distorted views of oneself and others, tying into relationship stabilitynarcissism and self-image, and personal development. Research shows that ongoing self-analysis builds SCC.

Şar and Türk-Kurtça (2021) also found that low self-concept clarity was associated with dissociation. Incoherence of self affects communication. Notably, Vanaken and Hermans (2020) showed that when we tell a clear narrative, listeners are more open to interacting, and are more supportive and positive.

3. Disorganized Attachment: Attachment style is the quality of how we relate to close others. Attachment was originally studied in infant-mother dyads, based on how babies separated from mom act when she returns. Secure babies roll with it, welcoming the caregiver and settling back into routine curious exploration. Avoidant babies, accustomed to a rejecting caregiver, learn to self-soothe rather than seek comfort, and anxious-ambivalent babies with inconsistent caregivers have trouble adjusting to reunion and are hard to console. Parallel patterns of secure, anxious/preoccupied, and avoidant/withdrawn attachment extend into adulthood. 

In addition to the organized secure and insecure attachments, an unstructured style called “disorganized attachment” has been identified. Babies with disorganized attachment show contradictory behavior, appearing scared of the caregiver, disoriented and uncertain upon reunion, flipping around among different styles.

Disorganized adult attachment follows a similar jumbled pattern, with elements of secure, avoidant, and anxious attachment jumping around more chaotically, associated with complex trauma, dissociative disorders, and borderline personality organization, as well as addictions, eating disorders, and related problems with underlying difficulty with self-regulation.

Recently, attachment-based therapies have become available to help people develop greater security, and approaches including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) have been shown to improve attachment style.

“Adults who score higher on the disorganized dimension were expected to fear their attachment figures, to be confused about relationships with attachment figures, and to have trouble trusting attachment figures.” —Paetzhold and Rhodes 

4. Mentalization: Also called "reflective function," mentalization is a relatively recent evidence-based concept drawing upon psychoanalytic theory. Reflective function can be insufficient ("hypomentalization") or excessive ("hypermentalization"). With hypermentalization, people are too basic, unaware of the complexity of mind involved in making sense of oneself and others in the world. With hypermentalization, mental models are disconnected from reality, with overly sure inaccurate beliefs and assumptions. When measuring reflective function, researchers look at two dimensions: too uncertain, and too certain.

Pioneers Fonagy and Target (2006) define mentalization:

"[A] form of mostly preconscious imaginative mental activity, namely, perceiving and interpreting human behavior in terms of intentional mental states (e.g., needs, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, purposes, and reasons). Mentalizing is imaginative because we have to imagine what other people might be thinking or feeling; an important indicator of high quality of mentalization is the awareness that we cannot know absolutely what is in someone else’s mind... Individuals may have some degree of certainty about their ability to ascertain their own mental states and even those of others, but should also be aware that all of those mental states are somewhat opaque.” 

Poor mentalization is associated with childhood maltreatment, abuse and neglect, attachment style, and poor self-integration. Recent research by Paetzhold and Rholes found that certainty in reflective function reduced dissociation related to disorganized attachment in adults with developmental trauma histories. Mentalization-Based Therapy (MBT), has been shown to be therapeutic for a growing number of problems, as it improves core mental functions required for effectively navigating individual psychological and social reality.

Moving along

Many of these factors are difficult to grasp, often warding off uncomfortable or even painful experiences. Awareness of unawareness appears paradoxical, self-reflection the ultimate acrobatic act, impossible until it is possible.

Defensive reactions protect us, pacing personal development, but when no longer adaptive may delay growth and recovery. Regardless, burgeoning self-awareness often brings relief from confusion and helplessness along with increasing access to emotions and dissociated parts of the self, some more welcome than others.

While a significant chunk of who we are comes from innate factors that are harder to modify, what we pick up during development substantially impacts who we are and how we live. Good parenting is associated with healthy adult relationships, whereas maladaptive parenting leads to a higher risk of future abuse and narcissistic personality. Becoming more aware ultimately creates greater agency and choice as we successfully integrate into ourselves nascent realizations about ourselves and others.

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1. Due to space, personality is not directly addressed here. According to research by Hudson and Fraley (2015), most people want to improve one or more personality traits—and in experiments they designed, participants were able to target and change personality traits through deliberate practice.

2. Self-Concept Clarity Scale (Campbell et al., 1996)

My beliefs about myself often conflict with one another.

On one day I might have one opinion of myself and on another day I might have a different opinion.

I spend a lot of time wondering about what kind of person I really am.

Sometimes I feel that I am not really the person that I appear to be.

When I think about the kind of person I have been in the past, I'm not sure what I was really like.

I seldom experience conflict between the different aspects of my personality.

Sometimes I think I know other people better than I know myself. 

My beliefs about myself seem to change very frequently.

If I were asked to describe my personality, my description might end up being different from one day to another day.

Even if I wanted to, I don't think I could tell someone what I'm really like.

In general, I have a clear sense of who I am and what I am.

It is often hard for me to make up my mind about things because I don't really know what I want.


Ramona L. Paetzold & W. Steven Rholes (2021): The Link from Child Abuse to Dissociation: The Roles of Adult Disorganized Attachment, Self-Concept Clarity, and Reflective Functioning, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2020.1869654

Vedat Şar MD & Tuğba Türk-Kurtça PhD (2021): The Vicious Cycle of Traumatic Narcissism and Dissociative Depression Among Young Adults: A Trans-Diagnostic Approach, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2020.1869644

Şar, V., Dissociative depression: a common cause of treatment resistance January 2011. In book: Female Turkish Migrants with Recurrent Depression (pp.112-124)Edition: 1Chapter: Dissociative depression: a common cause of treatment resistancePublisher: StudiaEditors: Renner W

Vanaken, L., Hermans, D. Be coherent and become heard: The multidimensional impact of narrative coherence on listeners’ social responses. Mem Cogn (2020).

The Mentalization-Focused Approach to Self Pathology Article in Journal of Personality Disorders · January 2007 DOI: 10.1521/pedi.2006.20.6.544 · Source: PubMed  Fonagy, P and Target, M

Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 490–507.

Campbell, J. D., Trapnell, P. D., Heine, S. J., Katz, I. M., Lavallee, L. F., & Lehman, D. R. (1996). Self-concept clarity: Measurement, personality correlates, and cultural boundaries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 141-156.