There’s No Such Thing As a Healthy Self

In an ironic twist of reasoning, a reader writes, “the absence of a healthy sense of self or ego can lead to psychological illness, and difficulties in life in all kinds of ways.” Talk about trying to make the cause of the disease the cure!

Voicing a common view, she says on one hand, “the world that we live in is a result of ego gone crazy;” but on the other, “I also believe in a healthy sense of self, and an understanding of boundaries.” That may not seem like a contradiction, but it is.

There is no such thing as a ‘healthy sense of self.’ The question is, what replaces the outmoded notion of a ‘healthy sense of self?’ To find out, we first have to be clear on why the self in the smaller sense cannot replace the self in the larger sense.

I’m not referring to the ‘Higher Self’ and ‘lower self’ idea that’s been imported from Eastern philosophy, and merely complicated and confused matters been further. The duality in such a view offers no resolution. Besides, it’s silly to use the same word to refer to both positive and negative phenomena.

The self has shrunken to an individualistic construct, orbiting its own conditioning. It’s no longer intact and coherent, even in the partial sense, when society was relatively coherent and cohesive.

And though the moribund state of Western civilization has completely discredited the idea of a healthy ‘me,’ the self continues to be the cornerstone of the psychological industry.

In more and more lands, the supporting structures of society—identification, tradition, shared values, and institutions—have broken down and lost their meaning and cohesiveness. Individuals have turned to the self in the smallest sense of the word, and become concerned only with ‘me and mine.’

Historically the self, even in individualistic countries, was not just about the ‘me and mine;’ it was made up of one’s land, people, nation, and religion. Increasingly, there are only the hollow vestiges of these more substantial and contextual ties that once bound people together.

Now, there is a preoccupation with a ‘healthy self.’ That’s not only self-centered, it contributes to the rampant narcissism so evident in the West today.

The idea, the reader states, that “one’s social identity, and sense of self, which individuates in a child around the age of 2 or 3, leads to a sense of autonomy, self-direction, and purpose in life,” is not only superficial and contradictory; it’s unworkable and ironic, given how stuck in egocentricity so many people now are.

For many people who have been wounded in relationships, the idea of a healthy self, and the strengthening of ‘my boundaries,’ becomes a defense against getting hurt again. They say, “I abandoned myself and gave myself over completely to love. I lost touch with myself and my needs.”

But they mistake the condition of ‘falling in love’ with love, and promote and defend the self as a bulwark against getting hurt again, becoming more self-centered in the process. The prescription is not worse than the disease; it is the disease.

Is the self, supposedly healthy or not, necessary? No. One can maintain a dynamic balance within oneself, and even with another in intimate relationship, without anchoring oneself in the conditioned construct of the self. One’s grounding is in self-knowing, which is always in the present, not in the separative structure of the ‘me.’

Wholeness is probably the greatest drive within us. But the self is always separate and partial. It cannot be whole and healthy, not even to the limited degree that it once was. Perhaps the reason romantic love remains such a driving force, despite its dysfunctionality, is that that the need to lose one’s self, in an illusory wholeness in union with another, is very strong.

Surrendering the self has become the scariest proposition to most people. In a disintegrating society, at an emotional level people ask: what will I be if not me?

The real question is: What is one’s anchor? While some of our parents or grandparents may have found security in each other, growing together in a deepening friendship after the initial fire of romantic love, that way is gone. Friendship is certainly very important, probably even more important. But without accentuating the ‘me,’ one has to be grounded in oneself and cannot find wholeness in union with another.

If our foundation is the separate self (and again, the self is always separate), rather than self-knowing in the present, there can only be more fragmentation and suffering, for others and oneself.

The earth waits for man to end our fragmentation, and move in the direction of wholeness. Accentuating the basic fragment and fragmenting mechanism of the self can only make matters worse at every level.

Martin LeFevre