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I Want To Know Myself: The activity of our relationship with another.

I want to know myself; I want to know who I am. I feel empty, like nothing. I don’t react to anything, or anyone. It’s like I am just existing, on autopilot.

I want to know myself
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Should any of my clients, past or present be reading this that might be thinking I am addressing them directly. I am not. Instead recognise how ordinary it is for such feeling and thoughts to be occupying the mind of many people, whether coming to therapy or not.

Fundamental in responding to my client and to achieving a change for my client is the notion of ‘self; and the notion of ‘change’.


Think about how you see your-SELF. There are thoughts you have in which you describe and define your-SELF.

Now, consider how you behave when you are with different people, for example, with siblings, with parents, with work colleagues, with strangers, with friends, with partner …

Probably you will be able to describe different behaviours with different people. In fact, you could probably describe different behaviours depending on the situation you are in – in public, in private, in an office, at a party, and so on.

So which of these describes your‑SELF?

In all of these situations is there any common behaviour that you can point to?

Within all these circumstances and permutations of people there is both your SELF and your personality; yes there is a difference.

The self that is my‑SELF is going to vary in behaviour and thought and emotion in differing situations and with different people. Therefore is leads to concluding that SELF is going to be dependent on who you are with and the situation you are in.

Consider this; there is no SELF. There is no object that you can call SELF, you cannot point to SELF. You might consider pointing into the mirror and saying “look, that is me”. Yes and me is this the physicality of your being – and SELF is more; it is the physicality of you and the thoughtfulness of you and the emotiveness of you, and the behaviour of you.


self is not a “thing” or a given, but an emergence in a given situation. Location 76 (Philippson, 2009)

In different situations, and with different people, you are different. Not completely maybe, but definitely some differences in how you are. Perhaps more relaxed; maybe less talkative. In any given situation what emerges is your Self. Self emerges in each particular situation.

So, it’s an interesting position to consider your Self is both an action and a reaction with the person you are with; or indeed in a situation alone. This view of Self can be disturbing to think about as it challenges the sense of independence, autonomy, and individualism. My‑SELF is composed in that moment of interaction with another. This view of self is also a challenge with regard to being the same self and being a different self. A person can feel in crisis in thinking there is no consistency of their being; accepting we can be different with different people suggests we are never the same. This has different truths. The self that is the same in different situations can be considered to be personality and aside from personality the Self is changing and is changed in relational contact. There may be something unnerving and the same time comforting in this thinking.

Self is the activity of our relationship with another.

Reflecting back on to all those different people and situations you were always your-Self.

The Self that is you reacts differently in so many ways in so many situations that it is easy to be confused as to ‘who you are’. You are all of those different reactions and yet you want to have a simpler answer to help identify your Self. This is a conundrum and if you resist defining who you think you are and accept the many differing behaviours as all being you then there is greater and longer term benefits.

These benefits come from exploring the dynamics that exist in the differing situations, and with differing people. When you think about how you are with a friend, or a sibling, or a parent consider what is going on that you behave in a different way. What answers, or thought, come to you. How does your body react when you think about times with your family versus times with friends?

The different way in which are in different situations are moulded by all our previous experiences we have had; life experience teaches us. Particularly those experiences in the family and peers and school have shaped you; and so often the negative experiences leave a more indelible mark.

Our experiences have conditioned us to accept unconditionally some things; to be vigilant about somethings; the outright rejection of some things; to be curious of some things; to be excited, or apprehensive of other things; and so on.

The major influence on our responses in new situations are the relationships experienced with family and school life; our relationship in friendship groups whilst growing up; the values and rules told we are told to uphold. All these are parameters by which you bring to how you relate with another person today. How you are in contact with another person is a relational act that is influenced by the Self.

Consider the rules your parents instilled in you about how to behave towards family relatives – always say please and thank you, wait quietly and don’t interrupt our conversation, no disagreeing in front of guests, do what I tell you straight away, and so on.

Consider what was expected of you in terms of tasks in the house – washing dishes, putting things away, tidying your room, etc.

Consider what behaviour was rewarded and what behaviour was reprimanded, or punished; what did you do to please your parents; and even what did you do to annoy your parents?

As a child you are exposed to a myriad of rules and values to adhered to; some more than others. Generally there is a reward and punishment approach to what is approved and what is disapproved of. Acceptable behaviour is rewarded, and unacceptable behaviour is shamed, and the child learns they are ok in some ways and not ok in other ways.

Much of the early childhood years required a higher degree of compliance than the later years yet often the level of compliance does not diminish, and the person becomes conflicted with wanting to do things ‘their own way’ versus the way they were taught. This conflict can continue in adulthood.

Growing up needs a set of rules and the rules change with our growth and social needs. As you mature you move to a position in where you choose how to be in the world – or do you? Very often the conflict experienced in adulthood is due to maintain an adherence to a rule from childhood which as an adult you have not considered to a choice; conflict builds with having to follow a rule that part of you is resisting through lack of choice.

In childhood you are required to ‘swallow whole’ a rule and in adulthood you are required to ‘chew over’ a rule and make a choice on the rule.

The way you are when in making contact with another in the myriad of situations through each and every day is often controlled by unwritten rules first adhered to in childhood and adolescence.

The Contact you make will depend on your awareness and behaviour in the meeting of the other and how well you can meet in the present moment, rather a past or anticipated moment.

Whilst Collins dictionary definition for self is:

Your self is your basic personality or nature, especially considered in terms of what you are really like as a person.
A person's self is the essential part of their nature which makes them different from everyone and everything else

This is not your, or my - self. This dictionary defined self is more a socially derived meaning to provide individualistic positions of who you are; these definitions describe particular situational ways of being and are better referred to as personality, not self

Accepting self has a deeper and more fulfilling meaning and by recognising dynamic, rather than static, characteristics allows for a fulfilled and satisfying ‘knowing myself’.

The Self, of myself, is changed in differing situations and with different people and the original Gestalt Therapy Theory has proven itself over the last eighty years as pertinent, applicable and acceptable as the definition of Self. The Self is known in the Contact with another person, and with differing situations. This gives us the statement from Gestalt Therapy theory (Perls, et al., 1952):

Self is a function of Contact.

Patterns of Contact: My Self in Different Situations

Contact is the active directing we make to another. The following diagram show phases of a spectrum of behaviours and responses that occur in every moment of our interaction in the world. These phases of contact are essentially a description of the ‘in the moment’ happenings and represent the emergence of your Self. These are the preparations to being in and with the initial stimulus, that is itself emerging.

Process of Contact, Spectrum Phases
Figure 1: Patterns of Contact: My Self in Different Situations

The process leading up to Being in-Contact

What follows is a description and explanation of each of these phases; and it these phases that is preparing for being in-Contact. This in-Contact is Self; the Self that is influenced through the experiences of the phases.




I ask myself



I’m not going to look; I’m not feeling anything.

Am I open to making contact?



“Oh, this is just like last time!”

How aware am I of my situation?



Shall I, Shan’t I?

Am I Okay to Act?



“I’m just going to sit here and ignore you”

How am I responding?


1.      Am I open to making contact? Sensation

I’m not going to look – I’m not hearing this – I’m not feeling anything.

In all our actions the starting point will be a stimulus to which we respond. This might be a thought; something visual, or auditory; this might be a physical sensation, internal or external.

“Oh dear, I don’t want to talk, keep my head down and pretend I don’t see them.” In this situation the person has been stimulated, visually or audibly, and chooses

Sensitivity to Stimuli
Figure 2: Open to Contact

to try and avoid any contact; little tolerance to the stimuli.

Possibly even more avoidant is the person that just does not see anyone around them; that doesn’t, selectively, hear a call of their name, or a hello. In this situation the person has achieved a level of shutdown to not hear, or see; or at least has short circuited the need to exercise any action; indifferent to stimuli.

Moving along the spectrum through the more socially acceptable tolerance of stimuli there comes the oversensitivity to stimuli, highly reactive.

In this end of the spectrum of sensitivity the person is very reactive; easily upset; overwhelmed with joy; or maybe quick to irritation.

Your-Self is dependent on the process of Contact with another and therefore the initial definition of your-Self is how open and attentive you are to being in Contact with another. Do you live with an indifference towards being approached, or approaching, another person; do you find your-Self being overwhelmed by sights, and sounds; do you find that you have too many reactions rushing through your head and body to many situations?

Consider the possibility that you no longer need to be either highly vigilant, or overly hidden with being in Contact with others.

Self can only emerge in a particular situation when there is an openness to tolerating the initial stimulus.

2.      How aware am I of my situation? Awareness

Having been stimulated by our senses how much awareness of THIS situation is there? I have emphasised THIS situation to draw attention to the process that transpires in all situations and experiences we have.

“Oh, this is just like last time!”;

In the process of awareness our experiences are categorised and filtered as new or repeated. Repeated experiences ,like the routine tasks of the day, can be too easily relegated from attention, yet in truth have a newness about them that is often unrecognised. Other repeated experiences routine and do not require any focus of awareness, for example, the feeling of the tightness of the belt around you waist – you are momentarily aware of this and then it is ignored; What we process as new experiences gain our attention.

Awareness of Experience
Figure 3: Situational Awareness

As the new experiences are reviewed our attention can get stuck with pondering too much on one or all of these experiences; our mind jumping from one to another. Alternatively we hang on tightly to one experience with too much consideration and over analysing. “there is so much to choose from, do you think A or B or C …”; “I was thinking about this and then thought maybe not, what about this instead? or “I think I can get this to work, give me a little more time”; “I’m sure this will be that right way, let me do it this way”

Not giving thought to any of the new experiences and jumping from one to another might be a process of over thinking however might otherwise be a process to avoid the experience which is shouting out for attention. By shouting out I am meaning an internal thought process in which you would be ignoring the obvious need for attention and instead you deflect with some other focussing. “Oh, you look really upset, but don’t worry, look at this instead, I know you will like this

A healthy awareness to new experiences may well involve some over thinking as part of the process of focussing on the actuality of the present experience, but will not dominate.

3.      Am I Okay to Act? Mobilisation

Prepare to Act
Figure 4: assimilating a response

Shall I, Shan’t I? Do I do this , or do I not?

Do you recognise the times when you want to do something, and hesitate, or withdraw from taking action? Sometimes this is a necessity, like not interrupting quite yet, and waiting to go to the bathroom? Or, wanting to speak, or go somewhere, and feeling unsure about the reception you’ll get?

This hesitation is the avoidance of committing to act; instead, there is stalling. The stalling will range from inhibitions that are felt to be necessary.

‘I was told that it is not polite to do behave this way’; ‘doesn’t everyone remove their shoes?’; ‘ I know that will just lead to trouble’ ‘it’s dangerous’ ‘it’s silly’.

At the other end of the spectrum from inhibiting thoughts and behaviour there is over questioning; analysing and misdirecting interest. There is a pretence of commitment by ‘talking about’ and ‘not doing’. Curiosity can often be an avoidance from getting on with things.

‘How would you do it?’; ‘are there other ways to do this?’; ‘I think I need to know a lot more about this’ ‘have you always been like this?’ ‘tell me more’

Because we are talking about a spectrum there is the middle range that overlaps where over questioning and inhibition has a value. The distinguishing feature is how ready are you to view the present situation and make a present-moment analysis by chewing over the situation; and not be constrained by old patterns. The healthier approach is the evaluation of the ‘shall I’ and the ‘shan’t I’ in light of the current situation and assimilating an appropriate response. The process to act involves having a readiness to move to committing and be part of the experience that is unfolding.

4.      How am I responding? Action

At some point you will act; you will have to take action. However doing nothing is itself and action. Whatever the situation, you will be involved in performing some form of action. Someone saying “I will not retaliate” or “I will not be intimidated”, or even “I’m just going to sit here and ignore you” is performing an act of resistance to the impulse being felt. With the examples given maybe the impulse was more along the lines of “I will fight you”, “I will leave this situation” and “let me tell you”

and ... action
Figure 5: taking action

Key to appropriate action is ownership. To own your responsibilities in your actions. This is sometimes difficult as doing so may be to acknowledge being wrong. Alternatively it may be praise that puts you into the unwanted spotlight

A particular way out of this is to deny responsibility, or to give excuses why it is like this; or you blame someone else. In this way you avoid taking ownership for your actions. Another difficulty is not wanting to draw attention to yourself, thus maybe you stay inconspicuous, hidden, even when, perhaps, there is praise to be received.

At the other end of the responding spectrum rather than owning their responsibilities the person takes on the responsibilities of everyone. At the extreme a person sees themselves responsibility for the woes of those around them. This can particularly show thinking they are responsible for others are feeling and leads to neglecting their own feelings. There is a pattern of thinking that they are responsible for solving all the world’s problems. In addressing everyone’s problems the person is seeking control; control of outcomes from being adverse, bad, tragic etc.

The ends of the Responding Spectrum are infused with false actions that do not address the action required to fully satisfy and resolve the unfolding situation. However these false action can convey to the person that something appropriate has taken place and therefore is complete, and they can move on. As an example

A child is playing, and a favourite toy gets broke. The appropriate action is to express disappointment, or dismay, or shock. However the parent intervenes saying you have many other toys, be happy you have these to play with. As a result instead of being disappointed, or expressing shock, or upset, the child replaces these expressions with thought process to be grateful and happy and over times never completes fully an expression of disappointment to appropriate situations and instead adjusts to the situation something like “oh well at least there is something else to be happy for”. Therapeutic intervention occurs when this adjustment fails to address the disappointment.

This examples also indicates how our actions are never solitary or independent from others; all is in relationship

These phases of Sensation (pretend I don’t see them); Awareness (This is just like last time); Mobilisation (Shall I Shan’t I); Action (I’m going to sit here and ignore you) evolve into the actual contact experience. The healthier functioning each phase has the more fulfilling will be the meeting moment of Contact; and Self is Contact.

To Know your Self

Explore the behaviours, feelings, thoughts and bodily reactions that happen within each of the phases described. Consider where you are on the spectrum of each of the phases and you will know your Self; you will have a description of you in terms of your behaviour thoughts feelings and physiology.

Mostly the exploration of knowing Self leads to a desire to be different. To be able to be different requires the willingness to change. Change is the subject for another time. For now concentrate on accepting what you know of you, of Self.


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