I want to preface this with the note that I am not trained in the study of psychology. I don’t have any more experience on the subject than anyone reading this. I have thought about the subject for a period of time however, and the following is the direct result of that. This entire project is essentially a grandiose spitball, and I look forward to hearing criticism and adjustments from others.
I first began to consider this subject a mere few weeks ago, while watching a lecture by Doctor Peterson, of ‘pronoun’ fame. In this video, he described a patient of his who had recently begun reading Nietzsche, and was, thus, ‘destroyed.’ Supposedly the patient, a fundamental Christian, was unable to handle the extreme challenge posed to his faith. This in turn, presumably caused a spiral great enough to require psychological care.
The notion struck me as odd right away. How does a book, or any writing, pose such a risk? How does a challenge to your faith, or even the loss of it, cause such extreme damage to your sanity? As I ruminated on this, I realized that the patient must have possessed a somehow incorrect sense of self. Logically, I surmised, he (or she) must have allowed this challenge to shake them to their very Core. At the same time, I began reading briefly into the Jungian archetypes, including the Shadow Self and the Animus. Jung of course, was very concerned with the sense of self, and self-realization. Although some of the concepts were a bit abstract and difficult to comprehend, I felt like I managed to take something away from the experience.
As I thought, I was reminded of my own personal experiences, and how they have in part shaped the person that I am today. But I am not merely a product of my experiences am I? If this were the case, then no person that suffers greatly would be able to hope for a positive sense of self, and we know this to not be true. Once again, I felt like I was returning to the nurture, nature debate first posed to me as a teenager in high school.
I considered other situations where people claimed to have lost their sense of self. As I read through them, I began to realize a common thread, and this led me to create this piece. I also remembered a friend’s advice given to him by another psychologist: many of our mental difficulties are created by our inability to reconcile the fact that others do not share our values.
I ultimately decided that some things, especially as abstract as this, need to be provided visually. Thus, I shaped the diagram you will see below, and as I worked on it, more pieces of it came together. However, in no way is it complete. I have also found other works online that share a similarity to this theory, however most are much more specific to relationships or careers, and few attempt to draw the conclusions that I do.
In the diagram below, you will see a series of concentric circles, each larger than the one before. Each circle represents a level of yourself, beginning with your Core self, your innate properties. This center circle is the closest to ‘nature’ or your natural state. As you move outwards, the circles are more dependent upon ‘nurture’ – external influences. My premise is simple – an ideal sense of self results from the proper balance and maintenance of the circles. Simultaneously, allowing one circle to move out of place or size can result in a negative outcome in certain circumstances.
It is important to note that to a certain extent, the circles are dependent on each other. A poor Core sense of self will certainly degrade the outside circles. Also, there is an exchange that occurs between these circles. They are usually at least semi-porous, allowing ideas and experiences to move through them. When this motion originates from the inner circle, it can be thought of as nature exerting itself, while motion that pushes inward is ‘nurture’ molding our sense of self.
For each circle, I’ll display variations on the diagram.
RED: You. Core self. Can be called soul, or innate personality.
GREEN: Values and faith
BLUE: Goals and Career
PURPLE: Politics and worldview
BLACK: External forces – intimate relationships, social circle, experiences and environment
The Core Self
It is difficult to describe the Core self – even to find the right words. There is no denying that it exists however. It is the innate, natural person that is born into the world. You could even go so far as to call it the ‘soul.’ Personality is not quite appropriate, as personality is also partly derived from our lived experiences. If you were to take your current self, and subtract all experiences and outside influences, you would be left with this Core. Our Core self is an asset, and thankfully difficult to change, but it is not immune to it at all. Protecting it is very important, because it is the basis of the remainder of the circles. If you keep this Core strong, and understand it, you will be protected when, inevitably, one of the outside circles collapses completely. Allowing this Core to remain separate from the other circles is key to stability. You will see in later examples what failure to do so results in.
But what if our Core is too strong? What if we rely entirely on our natural self and instinct? I would argue that this is also a terrible thing. If you do not temper your Core self with the surrounding circles, you leave it exposed – raw. It will inevitably become corrupted as it interacts with the outside world directly. You would also find it very difficult to function in society, which expects every member to act in a manner beyond that which nature dictates. So, what would a person that relies only upon their Core self look like?
Well, they would look like a child. While slightly exaggerated, this is what a child’s sense of self looks like. Politics, faith and deep relationships have yet to rear their head. All that is known is the natural desires and proclivities. It is as we age that society begins to help us put in place the remainder of the circles. There are some cases where this fails to happen, and cultural/ societal norms are never absorbed into the sense of self. In extreme cases, this could ultimately result in a sociopathic individual.
In summation, protect the Core, and acknowledge it. Understand it. Doing so will allow you to know when it conflicts with the outer circles, or external forces. This will empower you cope with those instances.
Values and Faith
Some may find it odd to place values and faith so close to the center. Notably, I can easily imagine a throng of atheists and so called rationalists that will quickly dismiss the importance of either. However, even those atheists have a faith – or lack thereof. If that lack of faith were to be challenged, they would find themselves as shaken as the Nietzsche reading Christian.
Faith is powerful, indeed, transformative. It is a basic tenet of Christianity for example, that the whole self is renewed by the power of God. Thus, while the faith may exist external to the natural self, the natural self is revivified by the external power. In addition, Faith exerts a tremendous outwards force, serving to shape the other two circles. Thanks to this position of strength, faith is one of the least likely circles to falter. Many individuals can live an entire lifetime without anything more than cosmetic changes to their faith circle. This gives them a certain stability, even in the face of troubling times.
Even strongly religious types acknowledge that there is merit in moderation. Growing up I heard the phrase ‘too heavenly minded for any earthly good.’ This saying admits that there should be limits, and even with a strong, stable faith, an individual still exists within a social structure and is influenced by and influences their external world.
It’s important to note, for the non-religious reader, that values can be more than religious, although a faith will most certainly shape our values. Values are what we find important, what we prize and despise. Values are certainly influenced by our environment, but they also vary by personal nature. For example, one man might most prize rationality, while another may place far greater weight upon beauty or harmony. Some have a Core self that despise deceit above all else, while others may naturally feel great animosity towards cowardice.
Just like faith, values are very important, but must be understood and used properly. If we project our values too strongly, we may easily aggravate those around us. In addition, placing too much weight upon our own values may cause us to be easily aroused to anger. When values are prioritized without understanding their context, you will find yourself constantly frustrated that those around you do not share your values. This is a miserable, bitter existence. Understand that while important to you, your values are not necessarily the same as those around you.
Goals and Career
We began with our Core sense of self. It pushes outwards, informing all the other circles, first passing through our lens of faith and values. From there, we meet our goals. It is all too evident how our values and faith inform our goals. Values are the abstract ancestor of goals, which allow us to realize our values in a concrete form. Take for example, an avid runner whose goal is to run a marathon. The underlying values are discipline and achievement, and those are ideals predicated by the Core self. In contrast, a goal could be to finish reading a complex philosophical book. The causal value is that of knowledge and enlightenment. This in turn, originates from the Core.
Goals can also be influenced strongly by the exterior nurture forces. This can be a positive event, particularly if the goal is met. Teenagers are often presented with externally enforced goals by society, which are critical to their development as members of society. If goals are continuously forced upon an individual however, they may begin to have a very negative effect, particularly if they are forced inwards and clash with the inner two circles. A goal that is forced upon an individual, that is in direct contention with the Core will do far more harm than good.
Goals are critical to success, and they serve to provide an outlet for our values as informed by our core. However, it is important to remember that not all goals can be met, and working towards a goal can be just as satisfying as reaching it. Interestingly, the process of meeting or failing goals can slowly alter your values over time.
Careers are a form of goals, and are often a lifelong endeavor that require consistent work, usually without immediate rewards. Unfortunately, they are also much more fragile than faith or the Core. Frequently they may change and shift beyond our ability to control them. In some cases, they may collapse entirely, often to devastating effect.
The figure below is often all too accurate. There are far too many cases of individuals that place an excessively strong importance upon their goals and careers. In some cases, they may even allow them to encroach upon their Core. When faced with a failure in their goals or career, these people are left absolutely devastated, and in some cases, are never able to recover.
Recognize that goals are admirable, and a career is important. But keep this circle where it belongs, and remember that both goals and careers can fail due to forces beyond your control. Lastly, guard against allowing your goals or career to supersede or undermine your values and faith.
Politics and Worldview
Like the other circles, our worldview is influenced at least in part by our Core. Our core informs our values and faith, which are manifested in a concrete fashion by our goals. As we move through life in the pursuit of those goals we inevitably acquire an opinion on the way that world should be, often based upon our values. This is the final circle of self, as it borders the separation between you and society.
The influence here at the outermost circle is not entirely from the inner self though. As the outermost circle, your worldview is heavily influenced by external forces. In fact, an individual’s worldview and politics are the most susceptible to change, and in many cases, they can look very different over the span of a person’s life. This often coincides with a shift in values as a person matures – the two are inextricably linked.
Politics are a more practical form of a worldview. While few individuals find a political party that is identically matched to their worldview, they learn to make compromises on issues they find less important. Again, this is a part of the maturing process.
One of the most common errors an individual can make is to overly solidify their worldview and / or politics.
This situation is also sadly prevalent. Here you have an excessively solid, rigid worldview. This results in overly partisan behavior. It prevents the inner values from being properly communicated to the world, and will often inhibit the achievement of goals. Even worse, it acts as a barrier that resolutely prevents any external forces from acting upon the circles. This creates inertia – a human being incapable of change or forward progress. All corners of the political spectrum have individuals who have fallen prey to this trap.
External forces are those outside of our self. They are myriad, but I have simplified them down to a critical few, which I will briefly touch upon here.
Intimate Relationships: These are the most profound relationships you will experience in your life. They most often take the form of a lover or spouse. In the truest sense, they are very powerful. They may even be a sort of ‘Core to Core’ communication. In some rare cases, they can be totally platonic. I postulate that the strongest intimate relationships share similarities in at least the two inner circles, but the more the better.
Social Circle: Your social circle is mostly chosen by yourself. You usually attempt to build this circle based upon your values and goals. This is a feedback loop – choosing wisely will reinforce your values and goals, while choosing poorly will erode them. It’s important not to let your social circle reach too deeply.
Experiences: Experiences are deeply powerful, and may strike us directly to the Core. Positive experiences tend to reaffirm our worldviews, values and goals. Negative experiences can be traumatic, often targeting our values directly. Both are also capable of shaping all the circles slowly over time.
Environment: This encompasses society, and the physical environment that the individual exists within. Society in particular has the power to impact the circles. In return, individuals possess the power to mold society.
It is important to note that the circles are not as well defined as the diagram. They are often constantly shifting and overlapping. It is important that the individual is open to that change, allowing in certain external stimulus, while maintaining a strong core that support itself against negative forces or the collapse of one of the circles.
I believe that the most important thing to remember, is to protect your core, and by understanding, allow it to express itself in the outer circles. Remember that circles closer to the exterior are more easily influenced by external forces, and use that knowledge to accept and moderate this effect.