Friday, 19 June 2015


Consider: "How does understanding yourself better help you change?"

The question looks innocent, but in truth may often-enough itself betray a failure of understanding. A radical failure to understand what self-understanding, at its best, actually amounts to.

When we understand some object better we do indeed get a better sense of what we can and can't then go on to do with or about it. Sometimes, perhaps, such a form of understanding obtains too in relation to ourselves, especially when we are dealing with factors of objective performance. I understand better what makes me tired or overwhelmed, so I change my behaviour.

Such an understanding however really only acts as a spur to self-management, and it would surely be a desperate and banal state of affairs if psychotherapy were reduced to the encouragement of 'self-management' or 'coping'. Within this state of affairs we precisely remain an object to ourselves.

And neither, I think, is it the case that self-understanding is best understood as its own reward, as if, or in the sense suggested by the idea that, to live an examined life were to be understood as a life in which one learned more and more about oneself.

True self-understanding, by contrast, involves as part of what is meant by the very idea, a changed relationship with oneself. It is the relationship change which is the significant part, and not any mere gain in reportable knowledge. It is its own reward because of this. In this change we move from becoming an object to ourselves to recovering our subjectivity (i.e. our subject-hood).

In what I will call true or subjectifying self-understanding I am already liberated. I am not then liberated such that I can then go on to do this or that in which the real gains will consist. Rather I am liberated from the picture that held me captive previously. I am no longer possessed by a thought or mood: rather, now I am self-possessed. The liberation of self-understanding does not enable me to go on to make better sense of anything: it is my thus going on. It was the possession by the picture which was kicking up the problems, but when I gain true self-understanding I am no longer within the frame of the picture - instead the picture becomes something I can see. But, again, it is not what I now see in the picture that is the important thing, nor what I do with it - it is rather that I am not myself now within the picture.

I remember once someone describing to me a paper in which the author was commenting on an analyst - perhaps Guntrip or someone - who documented in his journal the various psychological insights he arrived at about himself in the course of his psychoanalysis. The author's comment was that this showed that Guntrip - or whoever it was - hadn't really had an analysis. The comment may be hyperbolic, but we can surely grasp its meaning: if a true psychoanalysis involves the generation of subjectifying self-understanding, then the point of it is not to come to know facts about oneself. but to be liberated from being possessed by a phantasy and instead to become self-possessed.

True self-knowledge, I want to say, is just not a factive concern. Someone who truly recovers from a mental illness and recovers or develops in their subjectivity may remember little about it, just as we may all readily forget our dreams. And, I am suggesting, this is all just well and good.