The psychology of the self

In general terms, the self has the peculiar ability to be both subject and object, and presupposes a social process: communication between human beings. The “ego” is the immediate response of one individual to another; it is the incalculable, unpredictable and creative aspect of the self. People do not know in advance how the “ego” reaction will be. The ego reacts against “me”, which is the organized set of attitudes of the rest that one assumes.


The self is a construct of several schools of psychology / psychotherapy among which is Self Psychology founded by Heinz Kohut. Ideas about self diverge widely between theorists and fields of study, but for the most part they refer to the integrated set of elements that the individual constructs about that self (self-reference).

The problematic of the psychoanalytic concept of the self explicitly begins with Hartmann when he makes the distinction between the self as the psychic system and the self as a concept referring to the “self”. Hartmann states that “I”, as a psychoanalytic concept, is not synonymous with “personality” or “individual”; Does not coincide with “subject” as opposed to the “object” of experience and is more than awareness of the feeling of “self”.

The main psychotherapeutic currents that we will deal with around the self are:

  1. Psychoanalysis
  2. Behaviorism
  3. Transactional Therapy (TA = Transactional Analysis)
  4. Psychodrama
  5. Rogerian Therapy (Person Centered Therapy)
  6. Gestalt



At the beginning of the twentieth century, in his theory of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud tries to explain the human psychic functioning. Psychoanalysis is a theory about unconscious psychic processes, which presents an expanded conception of sexuality, its relations with psychic happening and its reflection in the sociocultural.

This, I and superego are the fundamental concepts (instances) of the “psychic apparatus”:

  • The Id: Its content is unconscious and consists mainly in the psychic expression of drives and desires. It is in conflict with the ego and the superego.
  • The ego: acting psychic instance and appears as a mediator between the other two. It tries to reconcile the normative and punitive demands of the superego, as well as the demands of reality with the interests of the Id to satisfy unconscious desires. It is the agency in charge of defense and development mechanisms that allow obtaining the greatest pleasure possible, but within the framework that reality allows. Much of its content is unconscious.
  • The superego: moral instance, judge of the ego activity. The superego is for Freud an instance that arises as a result of the resolution of the Oedipus complex and constitutes the internalization of norms, rules and parental prohibitions.


2) The self in behaviorism

The self is the capacity to consider oneself as an object. It arises through development and through activity and social relations. To develop the self it is necessary to reflect or unconsciously put ourselves in the position of others and to act as they would. The most important reference of behaviorism is the works of George Herbert Mead.

According to him, the genesis of the self lies in two stages of child development, the stage of the game and the stage of sport. The stage of the game is where the child learns to adopt the attitude of other determined children. They play to be another. In this way the child learns to become subject and object being then able to build his self. At this stage the child lacks a definite personality because it represents a series of determined roles. The stage of sport is the necessary stage to develop a self in the whole sense of the word. Here the child takes on the role of all who are involved in the interaction. Here the organization is manifested and the personality is profiled.

In the self occur two phases or processes, the “I” and the “mi”. The “I” is the immediate response of one individual to another. Mead focuses on him for four reasons:

  • It is an important source of innovation in the social process
  • I believed that it was there where the most important values
  • It is something that we all seek (the realization of the self) and
  • He believed in an evolutionary process in history whereby in primitive societies people were more dominated by the “mi” while in modern societies a greater component of the “I”.

The “mi” is the organized set of attitudes of others that one assumes. It is the adoption of the other generalized. The “mi” involves conscious responsibility.


3) The self in transactional therapy

At a functional level, the Transactional Analysis seeks to facilitate the analysis of the ways in which people interact with each other through psychological transactions, with their (ego) states, Father, Adult and Child, learning to use each in the right context: Father to give care, to reprimand and everything referring to the normative and ethical aspect. The Adult for the rational aspect and data processing, and the Child for the connected to the spontaneous, the feelings, the desires. Each of them reflects a whole system of thought, feeling and behavior that determine our expression, our interaction with others, and our understanding of ourselves. The objective of the TA is to grow in the achievement of an integrating personality of the three main parts of our personality.

The AT therapist will work directly on the here and now behavior problem solving, while helping clients develop tools to find creative (/ constructive) solutions. The ultimate goal is to ensure that clients regain absolute autonomy over their lives. Eric Berne defines this autonomy as the recovery of three vital human capacities: spontaneity, sensitization and intimacy.


4) The self in psychodrama

For Jacob Moreno and other professionals in psychodrama: “Role play is prior to the emergence of self. The roles do not arise from the self, but I arise from the roles. ”

Before and immediately after birth the child lives in an undifferentiated universe called the “identity matrix”. This matrix is ​​existential, but it is not experienced. It can be considered the place from which the self and its ramifications, the roles, emerge in gradual phases. Roles are the embryos, the precursors of the self, and tend to cluster and unify. Physiological or psychosomatic roles are distinguished, such as those of the subject who eats, sleeps and has sexual activity; Psychological or psychodramatic roles, such as phantasms, fairies and hallucinated roles; And social roles, such as those of the father, police, doctor, etc. Those that appear first are the physiological or psychosomatic. We know that between the sexual role, the sleeping subject, the dreamer and the eater, “operational links” are developed that associate and integrate them into a unit.

The self can at some point be considered a kind of physiological self, a “partial” self, a cluster of physiological roles. In the course of development the psychodramatic roles begin to group together and form a kind of psychodramatic ego, and finally the same thing happens with social roles, which constitute a kind of social ego. The physiological, psychodramatic, and social selves are mere “partial” selves; The total, truly integrated self of later years has not yet been born. Operational and contact links between the three clusters have to be developed so that we can identify and experience, after their unification, what we call our “I”.


5) The Self in Rogerian Psychotherapy

Carl Rogers‘ theory is constructed from a single “life force” that he calls “the updating tendency” that can be defined as an innate motivation present in all life forms aimed at developing its potentials to the greatest possible extent.

The part of ourselves that we find in the updating tendency, followed by our organismic appraisal of the needs and receptions of positive rewards for oneself, is what Rogers would call the true self. We value the positive reward of ourselves, which includes self-esteem, self-worth and a positive self-image.

* See the concept of organismic theory

On the other hand, since our society is not synchronized with the updating tendency and we are forced to live under conditions of value that do not belong to the organismic valuation, and finally, that we only receive conditioned positive rewards, then we have to develop an ideal of (One /) itself (ego ideal). In this case, Rogers refers to ideal as something not real; As something that is always beyond our reach; What we will never achieve.

The space between the true self and the ideal self; Of the “I am” and the “I should be” is called incongruity. The greater the distance, the greater the inconsistency. In fact, incongruity is what Rogers essentially defines as neurosis: being out of sync with your own self.


6) The self in the Gestalt

Gestalt Psychology studies the relationships that occur on the border between the organism and its environment, this relationship is the contact. According to Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951): contact is the simplest and immediate reality, it is the immediate consciousness and the motor behavior towards the assimilable novelty and also the rejection of the non-assimilable novelty. To the complex system of necessary contacts in the field, we call it ‘self’. It is situated on the border of the organism and the environment and belongs to both the environment and the organism. It is not a fixed institution, but exists where and when there is an interaction at the border.

The self is also known as the small factor that integrates the experience and that makes the person feel it as a single reality, a constant reality, throughout his life, which belongs to each person and gives him individuality and uniqueness .

Perls, Hefferline and Goodman tell us that the self is the system of responses, it is the function of contact, it is the contact system, it is the power that Gestalt forms in the field. But above all they insist on two points: the self does not exist as a fixed institution, but is a temporal process that exists where and when there is, in fact, an interaction at the border, and that is the border-contact In activity, belonging to both, the environment and the organism.


If you want to know a little bit more …


Hartmann, H.: “Comentarios a la teoría psicoanalítica del Yo” en Psycho­analytic Study of the child. Nueva York, Int. Univ. Press, V, 74-96, 1950.

Hood, B. (2012) The Self Illusion: How the social brain creates identity. Oxford University Press.

Blackmore, S. (2006) Conversations on Consciousness: What the best minds think about the brain, free will, and what it means to be human. Oxford University Press.

Bem, D.J. (1972) Self-perception theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 6, pp.1-62). New York: Academic Press.

Vazquez, C. (2007) Buscando las Palabras Para Decir. Editorial La Sociedad de Cultura Valle-Inclán, Colección Los Libros del CTP. Madrid.

Ritzer, G. (2001) Teoría Sociológica Moderna. McGraw-Hill / Interamericana de España.

Perls, F.S. et al. (2002) Terapia Gestalt: Excitación y Crecimiento de la Personalidad Humana. Editorial La Sociedad de Cultura Valle-Inclán, Colección Los Libros del CTP. Madrid.

Castanedo, C. (2008) Seis enfoques psicoterapéuticos. Editorial El Manual Moderno. 2ª edición. México.

Criswell, G.E. y Erskine, R.G. (2015) La Psicoterapia del contacto-en-la-relación. Diálogos con Richard Erskine. Revista de Psicoterapia 26 (100). Marzo 2015.


Other sites of interest:

Nathalya Cubas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,