Name of this page - this is for HTML5 outline...

The Psychotherapy Clinic 0750 001 6004 Call us now to arrange your consultation

The self and Personality disorders

“Once I was just me, but that made things very difficult when meeting people. The question would always come up: who was I ? All I could say was ‘I’m me’. These meetings never led to anything. So I chose a name for myself, quite at random: Giovanni Spadone!. That made all the difference. ‘Oh, Giovanni Spadone ! So glad to meet you ! And where are you from? What do you do, who are your parents…? Of course, if they had responded instead with ‘And who is Giovanni Spadone?’ I would have landed back in the same predicament… But you know, they never do that…( Ermnno Bencivenga’s fable ‘Io’.[1])

This moral so evident in the necessary birth of a social identity, I manifest myself in nature and in the social world. In Western cultures, there is a strong emphasis on the self as an individual. Being unique and independent is valued, such self-views have been termed individualism (Triandis, 1996), idependence (Marcus & Kitayama 1991), agency (Bakan 1966) and indexical self (Landrine 1992). Context in individualists’ cultures is not particularly important, the person is not surrounded by others, but contemplates in solitude. The Western emphasis on the self as individual may provide the impression that individual notions of the self are universal. However, self-views are highly dependent on context (Triandis 1996).

The hermeneutic view of culture is well complemented by Heidegger’s work on the ontology of the self. The self is an aspect of what Heidegger (1962/1977) called the horizon of shared understandings of "the clearing" carved out by the particular practices of a particular culture. Humans do not have a basic, fundamental pure human nature that is transhistorical and transcultural. Heigegger (1977) argues that the self is a social construct and that culture “completes” humans by enabling them to comprehend “meaningful” interpretations in the world, thus, “molding” their thinking and acting in certain ways. Humans are incomplete in a specific cultural matrix and the self embodies what the culture believes is human-kind's place in the cosmos: its limits, talents, expectations, and prohibitions Cushman, P. (1995).The process of studying humans is not the same as “reading” persons as “texts” (Gergen, 1988), but more like standing behind them and reading over their shoulder the cultural text from which they themselves are reading (Sass, 1988a, p.250).

Cultural psychology maintains that culture and the self are inextricably intertwined and mutually constitute each other (Triandis, 1989). That is, a set of psychological processes that make up the person, and thus the human agent, is shaped by and configured through socialization such that there is a degree of attunement between the psychological system and the cultural system. This view implies that a set of biological potentials (a neonate) becomes a set of actively organized psychological processes and structures (a person or self) by incorporating or resonating itself with the attendant selfways. In this essay I will try and argue that there is no universal self, only local selves, no universal theory about the self, only local theories.

Culture as Web of significance

From a hermeneutic perspective, culture is constituted by those shared meanings that make social life possible. These shared meaning functions as a background set of assumptions and values that structure our existence and orient us through the events of our lives (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Berger and Luckmann (1966) use the term plasticity to describe our nature that is shaped by the social context and culture. Social context and culture becomes a collective achievement that orients us in life, and supplies meaning and structure that is not innately available. Such social contexts and cultures provide a perspective of human nature and what it means to be a person (Geertz 1973). In Geertz’s (1973) view, this occurs because culture is constructed by “webs of significance” that permeate our social functioning and give meaning and coherence to our daily lives. Jacobs et al. (2002) pointed out the importance of caretakers and other social agents in influencing an individual’s developing self-system.

Departing from such point of view, human life is not conceivable without culture, because it provides the common understanding that allows the social world (and to some extent the physical world) to have some sense for us.

The enormous body of research on the self-concept in the North American psychological literature reflects North Americans’ deep fascination with the self. The self-concept, however, being forever bound to the historical and cultural context within which it is examined (Sampson, 1977), remains a resistant target of objective study. Gergen (1973) argued that much of social psychological research is an historical undertaking with the processes under investigation best understood as psychological counterparts to cultural norms. Indeed, Baumeister (1987) noted that the self-concept as we know it today is a relatively recent historical construction, emerging in Western Europe roughly around the 16th century. The point here is that the self cannot be treated as though it were an entity existing independent of a social context—its various forms have developed to their present states through peculiar sets of historical and cultural antecedents (Kitayama & Markus, 1999).

Being-in-the-World: A culture friendly ontology

Man alone of all beings, when addressed by the voice of being, experiences the marvel of all marvel; that what-is is. (Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics; WE, P258)

What Heidegger was interested in was to enquire precisely into the question of Being. His philosophy concerns itself primarily with the question, What is Being, What is what is? and it is this question, above all, that is fundamental to his thinking. He recognised the futility of trying to understand the being of human beings from any other perspective than that of ‘being-there’, being an integral part of what is. In Being and Time, he insists that, ‘Essentially, the person exists only in the performance of intentional acts, and is therefore essentially not an object.’ He asserts further that in ‘the attempt to determine the essence of ‘man’ as an entity, the question of his Being has been forgotten.’ (Being and Time in W.E., P97).

Heidegger’s work on the ontology of the self, asserts that in the West we tend to think of ourselves as separate, autonomous, self motivated agents set over and against the world of discrete objects. Heidegger (1962) believed such an individualistic self-understanding exemplified by the type of ‘I’ presupposed in Descrate’s cogito, is mistaken. He wanted to show that human existence transcended the subject-object split of Cartesian dualism which saw man an object composed of distinct mind and body.

In Being and Time (1962) Heidegger argues that the intentional act is always situated, thus, his use of the term Dasein in its etymological sense, ‘being there’: we find ourselves always already in a world, a horizon, that gives meaning to our intentional acts. The everyday world in which we find ourselves gives us a history, and the meanings and possibilities of that world.

Heidegger designates human beings-in-the-world as Dasein, literally `being-there`. Dasein is not a thing at all, but exists in relation to others. The being -there of Dasein cannot be set aside from the external world; existence defines Dasein. Self and world belong together in one being, Dasein (Polt, R. 1999). Heidegger points out that Dasein is fascinated by its everyday environment and always experiences things in relation to others. By formulating Dasein in this way, as being-in-the-world, Heidegger was emphasising then non-dual nature of human existence and attempted to describe the unity which underlies our conceptions about our separateness from the world we live in.

According to Heidegger being-in-the-world presupposes care, concern, and signification. Thus, our behaviours, feelings and thoughts are underwritten by deep assumptions concerning what is real, valuable, and important. Social context and culture then can be considered not only as webs of significance but also as webs of care. By care he does not mean simply a type of empathic emotional response. Instead, care refers o what we value, what we attend to in life, what we give our time and energy to, the aspects of reality that we focus upon. Our actions, as well as the time we spend on things, manifest what we consider valuable or worthy. The particular way in which any culture express itself, the way we have collectively fashioned and constructed reality, reveals what we care about. The structure of significance, care, and meaning that cultures provide permeates all social practices and institutions. In Western cultures, there is a strong emphasis on the self as an individual. Being unique and independent valued. Such self-views have been termed individualism, independence, agency, and indexical self (Triandis, H.C. 1996).

Social representations as fields of guidance for thinking and feeling

Lowe (1982) provides an interesting perspective on the way bourgeois discourse exert their power, shape and mold the community’s perception and reality in a subtle and unseen ways. Lowe describes how perception is shaped by a collective interplay of factors. Communication media, one of the main factors in Lowe’s theory, acts to frame and filter the way the self is molded by perceiving the world within a culture. Bourdieu, P. et al (1999), has analysed the dominant culture that possesses the power to make itself ‘legitimate’ and he has analysed the ways in which “lower classes are inclined to legitimate their own cultures by adopting the formalism of the dominant culture to which they aspire” (Robbins, 2000: 116).

The social sciences thus developed at the same time as the emergence of the isolated, individual self and the modern state’s need to control it through study and calculated manipulation (Foucault 1979; Triggs 1985). The self becomes a cultural artifact, has different configurations and operates within a culture, historical era and socioeconomic class in which it exists. The self either conform to such cultural artifacts and common discourse or is excluded and labeled as “mad”. Foucault points out, ‘From the depths of the Middle Ages, a man was mad if his speech could not be said to form part of the common discourse of men’ (1972, p. 217). The appeal to reason within a discourse provides an additional compelling form of exclusion. This oppositional principle, the claim to ‘reason versus folly,’ legitimates the labeling of discursive formations that do not fit the assumptions of the particular bourgeois discourse as null, invalid, without intellect, even as relativistic or worthless.

Foucault’s work has provided multiple sights from which to view the impersonal forces that play roles in the construction of who we are and how our life alternatives are defined (Sawicki, 1991). Foucault (1972) proposed that most discourses are governed by rules and principles of exclusion that include prohibition, ritual, the privileged right to speak, the appeal to reason, and the will to truth.

Such rules emanates from the cultural institutionalized bodies and it infuses individuals, fundamentally shaping and forming them and how they conceive of themselves and the world, how they see others, how they engage in structures of mutual obligations, and how they make choices in the everyday world. Foucault (1988) asserts that the self has not developed by inner logic, secret genetic code, or the peeling of layers of enlightment, but it has undergone extreme, erratic, often discontinuous change because it is part of the larger socio-historical fabric of its time. The self functions within a particular pattern; matching, maintaining and replicating. People do not live generally—selves are shaped through engagement in the understandings and practices of particular worlds and selves thus developed are instrumental in reproducing and maintaining the cultural systems from which they derive. Moscovici’s observation would fit here:

Our society is an institution which inhibits what it stimulates. It both tempers and excites aggressive, epistemic, and sexual tendencies, increases or reduces the chances of satisfying them according to class distinctions, and invents prohibitions together with the means of transgressing them. Its sole purpose, to date, is self-preservation, and it opposes change by means of laws and regulations. It function on the basic assumption that it is unique, has nothing to learn, and cannot be improved. Hence its unambiguous dismissal of all that is foreign to it. Even its presumed artificiality, which might be considered a shortcoming, is taken, on the contrary, for a further sign of superiority, since it is an attribute of mankind. (Moscovici, 1976, p.149)

Here Moscovici has pinpointed the central issue for the maintenance of stability within an open system such as a society. The dynamic regulation of social stability is guaranteed through the unity of the opposite functions within the same cultural-psychological meaning complex-a social representation. Moscovici’s (1984) theory of social representation shows how the individual self, its diversity of attitudes, phenomena, strangeness and unpredictability can construct a stable predictable world.

Social representations enable the person in their individual ontology (personal culture) and social ontogeny (based on internalization/externalization) to guide themselves in the next moment’s encounter with the environment, and to orient that guidance itself, by enhancing its direction or letting some other directions from the past diminish (Valsiner, 2000). Moscovici argues, that Social representing is a process of selective construction of a meaningful view of the world, followed by its continuous verification. For Heidegger we are ‘proximally and for the most part’ beings that participate in social practices that presuppose particular meaning and values and precede us (1962, p37)

Psychiatry and its influence on public representations

In his investigation of what he calls “the psychomorphic universe” Moscovici asserts that universe actualized in the thinking, feeling, and acting of persons, is jointly created by persons accepting certain socially suggested generic social representation which are promoted by some social institutions without doubting the general value orientations they entail. He cited as an example of such phenomena the European history of the 1930’s,
The German or Russian citizens who saw their Jewish or subversive compatriots sent to concentration camps or shipped to the Gulag Islands certainly did not think they were innocent. They had to be guilty since they were imprisoned. Good reasons for putting them in prison were attributed (the word is apt) to them because it was impossible to believe that they were accused, ill treated and tortured for no good reason at all (Moscovici, 1984, p. 45,)

The theory of social representations provides a useful forum for questioning, examining, and doubting the development of everyday knowledge of mental illness e.g DSM IV or ICD 10. Moscovici describes how scientific knowledge enters the everyday domain. Perhaps why ought to ask how the differentiation found in psychiatric professionals’ representations of personality disorders to explain the self (personality disorders as it is differentiated and socially represented in DSM IV or ICD 10 Mental Health), have influenced public representations? And how has it been transformed from professional to public representation?

In mental health a significant power exists between groups holding representations, thus, psychiatric knowledge occupies a position of considerable power, in that psychiatrist are given the power to define the normal and the upnormal (Morant 1998). Social representation theory allows acknowledgement of the ontological aspects of representation, thus, a historical analyses of beliefs about mental illness (e.g. Baumeister 1987; Foucault 1972) demonstrate the weigh of enduring and negative images of mental illness on individuals and groups through ages.

The Evolution of Self Through History ,Cultures, and moral Visions

Baumeister (1987) proposed a radical hypothesis about the nature of the self-concept and how it has been transformed throughout history. An analysis of the changing social structure from the medieval period to our own reveals a shift in the landscape of self-definitional processes available. Baumeister shows that changes in the structure of society closely parallel the increasing frequency of people reflecting on the nature of their identities.

Medieval identity was simple and stable defined primarily by givens such as social rank and gender. Many facets of identity that today are choice-driven or complex achievement processes were essentially givens in medieval life. One’s occupation was most often determined by family lineage and marriage was often arranged without any choice on the part of the betrothed. During this time period there is little evidence of self-reflection in existing cultural artifacts and almost no recovered autobiographies. In the centuries that followed, however, Protestantism provided people with religious alternatives and later industrialization and urbanization increasingly brought new opportunities for achievement and ultimately several life choices that could only be made by assessing and asserting one’s self.

Cushman (1995) argues that cultural conceptualizations and configurations of self are formed by the economies and politics of their respective eras and describes how the social realm has a powerful impact on the configuration of the self. Thus, the self is always a product of the historical, cultural, and moral landscapes constructed by those in power. Cushman discusses the importance of locating psychological processes between people rather then inside of people. By emphasizing the social (e.g., cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, familial, etc.) a person's life might be understood as reflecting a commitment to a certain moral framework that has become "sedimented" within the self and through which a "clearing" that illuminates and secludes various aspects of life may be created.

Cushman (1995) traces the evolution of the self throughout history to contemporary times, naming its current configuration in our consumerist society the "empty self," one that needs constant filling arguing that its establishment as a social institution may in fact reproduce some of the very ills that it is meant to heal. He suggests that Psychotherapists wrongly assume that they treat psychological problems that are inherent in human nature, instead he argues there origins are rather the consequences of particular historical, social, and economic circumstances.

Cushman describes how the psychoanalytic object relations theory was favored against Sullivan’s[2] position over the self as a social construction. If the self were a social construction, Cushman asserts that attempting to legitimize a ‘scientific’ discipline predicated on treating a ‘universal’ self with a ‘universal’ healing technology would be fruitless. On the other hand Klein’s self is constantly internalizing (consuming) and spiting out (projective identification) which provides a language and healing technology that made sense in an increasing consumerist culture. Cushman argues that the self is always a product of the historical, cultural, and moral landscape and is constructed by those in power.


In this essay I have tried to examine how these internalized cultural-based conflicts is an unavoidable given in the clients lives. The therapist should become concern with how the client relations, interactions with culture & subculture views, shared moral visions, social representations, language, learning socially constructed meaning, have all contributed in acquiring, and developing a self-and-world construct system to function in life. The self-and-world construct system can be defined as the conception each of us holds about who and what we are and how our world operates (Bugental 1978, p.178).

An important aspect of the therapeutic process for the client is coming into contact with an alternative moral framework in the person of the therapist. Through the focus on the interpersonal elements of all of life, moral frameworks, and the "clearings" they engender, the client is presented with a language that suggests that a new "clearing" can be constructed. This process also confronts the client with the various ways they participate in the continuation of their old "clearings," which challenges notions of themselves as passive victims.

The self-and-world construct system is accessed in therapy by exploring at a subjective level, the client’s personal meaning structure (beliefs) and self-perception because these constitute the client’s fundamental way of being in the world. Bugental (1999) posited that the self-and-world construct system is central to a person’s functioning but can easily go unrecognised as a source of life problems and emotional distress. The self-and-world construct system is the ‘spacesuit’ (Bugental, 1999, p.111) that allows a human life to be possible in a world that, existentially, has no absolute structure or meaning described by Miars (2002), as the source of existential anxiety. From an existential perspective therapy should attempt to bring to the client’s awareness of how their self-and-world construct system supports and enables their lives, how it constricts and dis-ables more effective living, and that our spacesuits can be modified to be more adaptable and satisfying.


Bakan, D. (1966). The duality of human existence: An essay on psychology and religion. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Baumeister, R. F. (1987). How the self became a problem: A psychological review of historical research. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 163-176.

Bencivenga, E. (1991) Fable Io. La Filsofia. In Trentadue Favole. Milan: A.Mondadori,

Berger, P.L., & Luckmann, T.(1966). The social construction of reality. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Bourdieu, P. et al (1999) The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society Policy Press: Cambridge

Bugental, J.F.T. (1978) Psychotherapy and process: Fundamental of an existential-humanistic approach. Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley.

Bugental, J.F.T. (1999) Psychotherapy isn’t what you think: Bringing the psychotherapeutic engagement into the living moment. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Co.

Cushman, P. (1995). Constructing the Self, Constructing America: A Cultural History of Psychotherapy. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Donald M. Lowe, U.S. historian, educator. History of Bourgeois Perception, ch. 4, University of Chicago Press (1982).

Foucault, Michel (1972) The Archaelogy of Knowledge. New York: Harper and Row.

Foucault, Michel (1973) (1961-French version) (translator Richard Howard). Madness and Civiiliztion: The History of Insanity in the Age of Unreason. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel (1978). The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel (1979a)[1975] Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel (1979b). 'Governmentality", Ideology and Consciousness, No. 6, Summer 1986, 5-21.

Foucault, M. (1988). "Technologies of the self." In L. Martin, H. Gutman, and P. Hutton (eds.), Technologies of the self. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York. Basic Books.

Gergen, K. (1988) If persons are texts. In S.Messer, L.Sass, & R.Woodfolk, Hermeneutics and psychological theory:Intepretive perspectives on personality, psychotherapy, and psychopathology, 28-51. New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University press.

Gergen, K. J. (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 309-320.

Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time, Harper & Row, New York.

Heidegger, M., (1977) The question concerning technology and others essay. New York: Harper & Row.

Jacobs, J.E., Bleeker, M.M., & Constantino, M.J. (2002) The self-system during childhood and adolescence: Development, influences, and implications. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 13, 33-65

Kitayama, S., & Markus, H. R. (1999). Yin and yang of the Japanese self: The cultural psychology of personality coherence. In D. Cervone & Y. Shoda (Eds.), The coherence of personality: Social

Landrine, H. (1992). Clinical implications of cultural differences: The referential versus the indexical self. Clinical Psychology Review, 12, 401-415.

Lowe, D. (1982) History of Bourgeois Perception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Markus, H.R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253.

Miars. D. R. (2002) Existential authenticity: A foundational Value for Counselling. Counseling and Values, vol 46.

Moscovici, S. (1976). Society against Nature: The emergence of human societies. The Harvester Press, Brighton, Sussex.

Morant, N.J. (1998) The social representations of mental ill-health in communities of mental health practitioners in the UK and France. Social Science Information, 37, (4), 663-685

Moscovici, S. (1984). The phenomenon of social representations. In R. M. Farr and S. Moscovici (eds.), Social Representations. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Polt, R. (1999) Heidegger: An Introduction .University of London Press

Robbins, D. (2000) Bourdieu and Culture Sage: Thousand Oaks, Ca

Sampson, E. E. (1977). Psychology and the American ideal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 767-782.

Sass, L. (1988A) Humanism, hermeneutics, and the concept of the human subject. In S.Messer, L. Sass, & R.Woodfolk. Hermeneutics and psychological theory: Interpretative perspectives on personality, psychotherapy, and psychopathology. New Brunswick, NJ. Rutgers University Press.

Sawicki, J. (1991) Disciplining Foucault: feminism, power, and the body. New Review, 96, 506-520. University Press.

Sawicki, J. (1996) Foucault, feminism and questions of identity, in G. Gutting (Ed.)
Society Polity Press: Cambridge The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (pp. 286-313). Cambridge:

Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton: He developed a theory of psychiatry based on interpersonal relationships where cultural forces are largely responsible for mental illnesses.

Triandis, H. C. (1989). The self and social behavior in differing cultural contexts. Psychological

Triandis, H.C. (1996) The psychological measurement of cultural syndromes. American Psychologist, 51, 407-415.

Trigg, R. (1985) Understanding social science: A philosophical introduction to the social sciences. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Valsiner, J. (2000) Culture and human development. London: Sage.

[1] Bencivenga, E. (1991) Fable Io. La Filsofia. In Trentadue Favole. Milan: A.Mondadori,

[2] Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton: He developed a theory of psychiatry based on interpersonal relationships where cultural forces are largely responsible for mental illnesses.


View all the articles in this category