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To Self or Not to Self?

Is there a way to harmonize the seeming tension between the psychoanalytic and the Buddhist views of the self? While both psychoanalysis and Buddhism aim to relieve human suffering, they suggest different approaches to viewing the self. While analysis suggests that one should regain a stable sense of self, Buddhism claims that our supreme good lies in realizing that the self is an illusion.


The notion of no-self holds a central place in Buddhism and is intended to free Buddhist practitioners from all suffering. The Buddha saw harm in the idea of a continuous, stable self. He emphasized that the concept of a stable identity generates a great amount of attachment, ultimately leading to suffering. In reality, when one contemplates what a human being consists of, one cannot identify anything stable where a continuous self can reside. Hence, according to the Buddhist philosophy, when we cling to the idea of the self, we want to preserve something that will most certainly disappear the next moment; we are doomed to suffer.


On the other hand, psychoanalysts aim to relieve their patients' suffering by helping them reconnect with their true self. They argue that much suffering stems from disowning parts of one's true self in response to early adversity. Lack of a supportive environment leads the child to disown parts of herself that are not met with love and support. As a result, the person lives their life pretending to be someone else and suppressing their natural tendencies. Psychoanalysts try to relieve this suffering by helping the patient reclaim and integrate what was disowned and suppressed.


These two philosophies appear to be in conflict. Can they be harmonized? Perhaps when analysts suggest that the patient should restore their (patient's) true self, they do not suggest clinging to a fixed identity. Instead, they encourage accepting one's desires, emotions, sensations, and motivations — without denying or hiding any of them — as they are at the moment. All these elements will change the next moment, and one will need to be mindful of that change and accept what emerges at that time. Perhaps analysts do not advocate for a fixed identity; they advocate for full awareness and acceptance of a process-based identity, without omissions.


Or is this a futile attempt at reconciliation, which turns analysis into existential psychotherapy?


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