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The Trajectory of the Self

In this chapter, elaborating upon the theme of the self, I shall follow the same course as in chapter 1, making use of analysis and advice which not only portray a `subject-matter', but help constitute the fields of action they concern.

Self-Therapy, a work by Janette Rainwater, is a book directly oriented to practice. Like the study by Wallerstein and Blakeslee, it is only one among an indefinite variety of books on its subject, and it figures in this analysis for symptomatic reasons rather than on its own account. Subtitled A Guide to Becoming Your Own Therapist, it is intended as a programme of self-realisation that anyone can use:

Possibly you're feeling restless. Or you may feel overwhelmed by the demands of wife, husband, children, or job. You may feel unappreciated by those people closest to you. Perhaps you feel angry that life is passing you by and you haven't accomplished all those great things you had hoped to do. Something feels missing from your life. You were attracted by the title of this book and wish that you really were in charge. What to do? 1

What to do? How to act? Who to be? These are focal questions for everyone living in circumstances of late modernity -- and ones which, on some level or another, all of us answer, either discursively or through day-to-day social behaviour. They are existential questions, although, as we shall see later, their relation to the existential issues discussed in the preceding chapter is problematic.

A key idea of Rainwater's perspective is set out very early in

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her book. Therapy with another person -- psychiatrist or counsellor -- she accepts, is an important, indeed frequently a crucial, part of a process of self-realisation. But, says Rainwater, therapy can only be successful when it involves the individual's own reflexivity: `when the clients also start learning to do self-therapy.' 2 For therapy is not something which is `done' to a person, or `happens' to them; it is an experience which involves the individual in systematic reflection about the course of her or his life's development. The therapist is at most a catalyst who can accelerate what has to be a process of self-therapy. This proposition applies also, Rainwater notes, to her book, which can inform someone about possible modes and directions of self-change, but which must be interpretatively organised by the person concerned in relation to his or her life's problems.

Self-therapy is grounded first and foremost in continuous self-observation. Each moment of life, Rainwater emphasises, is a `new moment', at which the individual can ask, `what do I want for myself?' Living every moment reflectively is a matter of heightened awareness of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Awareness creates potential change, and may actually induce change in and through itself. For instance, the question, `Are you aware of your breathing right now?', at least when it is first posed, usually produces an instantaneous change. The raising of such an issue may make the person `aware that she is inhibiting a normal full breathing cycle and allows her body to say "Whew!" in relief, take a deep breath, and then exhale it.' `And', Rainwater adds parenthetically to the reader, `how is your breathing right now, after having read this paragraph?' 3 -- a question that I could echo to whosoever might be reading this particular text ...

Present-awareness, or what Rainwater calls the `routine art of self-observation', does not lead to a chronic immersion in current experience. On the contrary, it is the very condition of effectively planning ahead. Self-therapy means seeking to live each moment to the full, but it emphatically does not mean succumbing to the allure of the present. The question `What do I want for myself right now?' is not the same as taking one day at a time. The `art of being in the now' generates the self-understanding necessary to plan ahead and to construct a life trajectory which accords with the individual's inner wishes. Therapy is a process of growth, and one which has to encompass the major transitions through which

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a person's life is likely to pass. Keeping a journal, and developing a notional or actual autobiography, are recommended as means of thinking ahead. The journal, Rainwater suggests, should be written completely for oneself, never with the thought of showing it to anyone else. It is a place where the individual can be completely honest and where, by learning from previously noted experiences and mistakes, she can chart a continuing process of growth. Whether or not the journal itself has the explicit form of an autobiography, `autobiographical thinking' is a central element of self-therapy. For developing a coherent sense of one's life history is a prime means of escaping the thrall of the past and opening oneself out to the future. The author of the autobiography is enjoined both to go back as far as possible into early childhood and to set up lines of potential development to encompass the future.

The autobiography is a corrective intervention into the past, not merely a chronicle of elapsed events. One of its aspects, for example, is `nourishing the child-that-you-were'. Thinking back to a difficult or traumatic phase of childhood, the individual talks to the child-that-was, comforting and supporting it and offering advice. In this way, Rainwater argues, feelings of `if only' can be got over and done with. `The basic purpose of writing autobiographical material is to help you be done with the past ...' 4 Another aspect is the `corrective emotional experience exercise'. The person writes down an event from the past in the form of a short story written in the present, recalling what happened and the feelings involved as accurately as he or she can. Then the story is rewritten in the way the individual would have liked it to happen, with new dialogue, feelings and resolution of the episode.

Reconstruction of the past goes along with anticipation of the likely life trajectory of the future. Self-therapy presumes what Rainwater calls a `dialogue with time' -- a process of self-questioning about how the individual handles the time of her lifespan. Thinking about time in a positive way -- as allowing for life to be lived, rather than consisting of a finite quantity that is running out -- allows one to avoid a `helpless-hopeless' attitude. Time which `carries us along' implies a conception of fate like that found in many traditional cultures, where people are the prisoners of events and precontracted settings rather than able to

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subject their lives to the sway of their own self-understanding. Holding a dialogue with time means identifying stressful events (actual events in the past and possible ones to be faced in the future) and coming to terms with their implications. Rainwater offers a `rating scale' of stressful happenings, based on research literature in the area (pointing out also that such happenings can be causally linked to the onset of physical disease). Examples include death of a spouse, divorce or marital separation, losing one's job, being in financial difficulties, plus many other events or situations.

`Taking charge of one's life' involves risk, because it means confronting a diversity of open possibilities. The individual must be prepared to make a more or less complete break with the past, if necessary, and to contemplate novel courses of action that cannot simply be guided by established habits. Security attained through sticking with established patterns is brittle, and at some point will crack. It betokens a fear of the future rather than providing the means of mastering it:

People who fear the future attempt to `secure' themselves -- with money, property, health insurance, personal relationships, marriage contracts. Parents attempt to bind their children to them. Some fearful childen are reluctant to leave the home nest. Husbands and wives try to guarantee the continuance of the other's life and services. The harsh psychological truth is that there is no permanence in human relationships, any more than there is in the stock market, the weather, `national security', and so on ... this clutching at security can be very discouraging to interpersonal relationships, and will impede your own self-growth. The more each of us can learn to be truly in the present with our others, making no rules and erecting no fences for the future, the stronger we will be in ourselves and the closer and happier in our relationships.

Finally ... death: `and the possibility that you're in charge here, too!' 5 Asking people to think about death, Rainwater says, typically provokes one of two attitudes. Either death is associated with fear, as in the case where individuals spend much of their present time worrying about their own death or that of loved ones; or death is regarded as unknowable, and therefore a subject

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to be avoided as far as possible. Both attitudes -- fear of death and denial of death -- can be countered by a programme of self-help that draws on the same techniques described elsewhere in Rainwater's book. Thinking back to the past, to the first experience of the death of another person, allows one to begin to ferret out hidden feelings about death. Looking ahead in this case involves contemplating the years of life which the person believes remain, and imagining the setting of one's own future death. An imaginary confrontation with death allows the question to be posed all over again: `What to do?'

Imagine that you have been told that you have just three years left to live. You will be in good health for these years. ... What was your immediate response? ... To start planning how you would spend your time? Or to be angry at how short the time is? Rather than `raging against the dying of the light' or getting bogged down in the mechanics of how you die in this fantasy, decide how you want to spend your time, how you want to live these last three years.

Where do you want to live?

With whom do you want to live?

Do you want to work?

To study?

Are there any ingredients from your fantasy life that you would like to incorporate into your current life? 6

Date: 2016-04-22; view: 867

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The Self: Ontological Security and Existential Anxiety | Self-identity, history, modernity
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