Maria was a 31-year-old artist who sought help to disentangle herself from a dysfunctional relationship with an emotionally abusive man. For the past few weeks, she had been seized by a compulsion to paint self portraits. She portrayed her likeness from various angles, experimenting with different hues and styles. She explained that she had “lost herself” and was painting her way back.
Sam, a 24-year-old recent college graduate, also complained of feeling lost. He slouched as he described a lingering, low-grade depression that he attributed to unemployment and living with his folks. Yet, when he read his poetry, he grew animated and stood up straight. When I pointed this out, he remarked that poetry helped him feel connected to his true self.
Similar things could be said of Ralph, a pot-smoking film student who succumbs to fits of self loathing when he isn’t working on film projects, or June, a depressed want-to-be screenwriter whose affect brightens whenever she makes progress on her script.
As I observe similar patterns among many of my psychotherapy clients, I can’t help but wonder—what exactly is the self, how does it get lost, and where does it go? And how is it that creativity can serve as a homing device, retrieving our wayward sense of “me-ness” and returning it to our awareness?
Since ancient times, philosophers have wrestled with the definition of self. Aristotle describes the self as a core essence of a living being that is defined by how it functions in the world. Eastern traditions equate the self as an egotistical state which must be transcended to experience unity with nature and divine consciousness. Freud conceived the self as consisting of three parts—an id, a primitive, disorganized part of the brain that contains basic, instinctual drives, the superego, a self-critical conscience that internalizes cultural norms, and the ego, which shapes our identity as it mediates between the two other states.
However, one of my favorite conceptualizations comes from Internal Family Systems, a therapeutic modality created by family therapist Richard Schwartz. Here, the self is presented as the conductor of an orchestra of sub-personalities, or “parts”—for example, a striving part, a worrying part, an exiled childlike part that holds all our pain. The conductor serves as an inner resource of wisdom, embodying the divine virtues of compassion, curiosity, calm, creativity, courage and confidence. When we are self-led, we respond to life with these qualities, mindfully leveraging the appropriate parts to collaboratively play the called-for notes in various situations.
The Self that Gets Lost
According to the IFS definition, the self never actually gets lost. It just gets overtaken by sub-personalities that take on extreme roles—for example, a highly critical part, an unforgiving taskmaster part, a raging part, an alcohol-binging part—to protect our most vulnerable, wounded parts, which become exiled in our bodies. These exiled parts develop in childhood when the self, in its natural state, is overtly or tacitly rejected, shamed, or criticized. Although they hide from our awareness, we can sense them whenever something triggers a strong emotional reaction. Once triggered, protective parts step in to protect the exile, either by controlling a situation, or distracting us because they fear we can’t handle the emotional intensity of our old wounds. As various parts mobilize to protect the exile from overwhelming the self, the self essentially “gets lost.”
One reason for the coup-de-parts is inadequate parental mirroring in childhood, resulting in a diminished sense of self. As widely observed, children are virtual sponges for feedback about who they are and what they are good at. Especially during earlier stages of development, children look to parents and caregivers to reflect back their talents, feelings, thoughts and uniqueness. Eye contact, presence, interest and curiosity instill in the child a curiosity about themselves and a sense of worth. Parents who respond to their children with self-led qualities like curiosity and compassion communicate acceptance, acknowledgement, and worthiness, helping a growing child develop the necessary self-trust muscles.
When parents are distracted or disinterested, children don’t get enough positive feedback that they are OK, lovable and can trust the self. Conversely, when parents are over-bearing and led, for example, by parts that are preoccupied with appearance or status, their excessive concern over how their children define themselves in the world provides few opportunities for the child to self-reflect and have his or her own positive thoughts and feelings. Consequently, the child will exile those parts that are deemed unwelcome by the outside world, and develop protective parts that help them get the love and attention they seek.
The danger, of course, is that in both instances, these protective parts disconnect the child from his or her self. Hence, the child who naturally would be inspired to become an artist born into a family that rejects creativity in favor of science, math, and business savvy, exiles his unwelcome creative self, and feels lost and unfulfilled in medical school.
Creativity as a Homing Device
How then can creativity reconnect us to the self? On a simple level, engaging in creative acts help us reconnect with more enduring, divine-like qualities of the self. After all, the self is naturally creative. The poem we write, the picture we paint, the music we perform, the photograph we take, the dance we express, can become a mirror of our inner world, reflecting back the self quality of creativity that might otherwise get drowned out by a cacophony of noisy exiled and protective parts.
This also explains why self expression can be so anxiety provoking—part of us may seek the buried treasure submerged in our psychic depths, while another part of us may fear dredging up monsters. Thus, the value of a skillful guide/therapist.
That’s why creativity also calls upon another aspect of the self—courage. As psychologist and creativity guru Rollo May points out in this signature work, “Courage to Create,” the creative act is the outcome (synthesis) of various dialectics (conflicts, contradictions, and tensions).” In other words, creativity can be a means of allowing our inner conductor, the self, to dialogue with, and resolve and reflect the tensions between, our various parts.
Thus, creative expression becomes a corrective lens, allowing us to catch glimpses of what is normally out of sight, including our own divine virtues. Once we behold our creation—the painting, the film, the poem, the ballad—we can’t help but know, and maybe even appreciate, the conductor and our inner orchestra just a little bit better. Looking in this mirror, we see perhaps that we are the sum of our parts, but also so much more.