Am I a Self or an Organism?

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We are organisms co-existing with our environment, making no sense without it, needing to be aware of what we are actually doing, rather than what we think we are doing — let alone what we think about what we are thinking we are doing.

In the next of my (drastically interrupted!) series on the self I’d like to take a perspective which actually bypasses the ‘self’ and sees human beings first and foremost as organisms, like plants and animals.

This way of looking at human beings as organisms striving to survive in their environments, reacting strongly to the conditions we are in and growing to the extent that these conditions provide us with the opportunity, does bypass specifically human developments — such as language and associated capacities for abstract thought and creativity. These are, in a sense, the essence of what it is to be human.

But it could also be that a heavy emphasis on the abstract creations of the human mind and identifying ourselves with them is actually a root cause of a lot of human distress, and causes us to forget that at the base of these needs to perfect, struggle with or reject our ‘selves’ lies an organism like any other, needing heat, light, food, interaction, being born, maturing, decaying and dying.

In his 1951 “Theory of Personality and Behavior”, Rogers identifies the start of the process of self-formation, in infancy: “A portion of the total perceptual field gradually becomes differentiated as the self”.

What happens to the rest of the perceptual field? What happens to direct experiences which are not identified as “me” or “mine”, which are not grabbed by the self? What do they mean to us? Do they have to be pushed out of consciousness somehow? Must we always be divided? Could this attempt to take what fits and pretend the rest didn’t happen cause tension and unnecessary suffering?

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Keith Tudor (2010) reclaims the organism as the centre of effective understanding and, most importantly, of helping people in distress. Somehow in the development of psychology, therapy and Rogers’ own school, the organism has become the poor relation to the self — who was to be “found”, “developed”, “actualised”. While this emphasis on self-development might well have served a purpose, and continue to serve one for many people, it also serves to raise internal tension for many, and to reinforce a tendency in psychology and therapy to concentrate on the separate individual at the cost of connection to others. George Simon, on this blog, is one of many commentators who have moral objections to this exclusive concentration on the needs, desires and neuroses of the individual.

I suggest that maybe it is our most fundamental level which needs attention. We are organisms co-existing with our environment, making no sense without it, needing to be aware of what we are actually doing, rather than what we think we are doing — let alone what we think about what we are thinking we are doing, and needing to pay attention to and address our basic needs for safety and connection. Maybe, rather than tweaking with our “selves” and trying to get them in perfect working order, this is the level at which we need to work, to help and be helped, in order to heal our distress.

References

Rogers, C.R. (1951) Client Centred Therapy. London: Constable and Company.

Tudor, K. (2010) “Person-Centred Relational Therapy: An Organismic Perspective,” Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies 9(1): 52-68.

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