Development of Sense of Self


Introduction to ‘A Natural Sense of Self‘

Note: This page was co-written by Annet Vogels and Alia Aurami

Babies, Environments, Input, and Healthy Growth

To illustrate the difference between the natural and healthy process of growth and development and a ‘crooked’ (warped, distorted, unhealthy) process, here are some ponderings about growth processes in nature.

On the page that describes the Tree Metaphor we have compared the development of the human brain with the formation of a tree so it seems not too farfetched to describe what is needed for a human infant through describing what is needed for a just-born plant or animal. It is a good idea to read that page first so you too can make use of this mental visual aid.

A Strict Sequence

A plant or animal as a seedling or infant, is going through a process of formation. Its anatomy and functional systems are still being formed, even after it has sprouted or been born. There is a strict sequence of development, in this formation process, and that sequence is pretty much pre-determined by Nature. (This process as a whole, however, is influenced by the interaction of Nature and Nurture.) Some things need to develop before others can, and if some bit of anatomy or physiology doesn’t for some reason (via the interaction of Nature and Nurture) develop fully and appropriately at its given time in the sequence, its ‘critical period’, and the clock marches on, then forever after the plant or animal is abnormal in some way.

So there are certain environmental inputs needed by each seedling or infant during this process of formation, and they are sometimes specific and unique to a particular critical period. For example, a seedling needs the exact right amount of sunlight, of water, of air, of various natural bio-chemicals, of temperatures, etc., at the exact right phases of its growth, or it will become abnormal.

An infant needs various similar kinds of physical environmental inputs, but also certain various kinds interpersonal/psychological/emotional input. If the developmental process of an infant happens in a situation in which the required conditions for the development of what we call a Natural Sense of Self are present at the appropriate time the child can develop a Natural Sense of Self. The term refers to what gets generated in case of the ‘normal,’ expected order of events. So for the development of a healthy Natural Sense of Self – certain critical conditions need to be operating at the time that they are needed. If these various inputs don’t come in at the appropriate time, development cannot proceed normally; the resulting person is warped in some way.

Lacks and Lags

What happens when the environmental input isn’t within the optimal range for the normal development of that particular species of living organism is that the adult (if indeed the young organism even survives) is defective in some way. Its form is misshapen or distorted or stunted. Its functional systems (physical and/or psychological) are weak, or they work in abnormal, defective ways that sooner or later will bring an earlier death because the necessary functions are not being done adequately to support a normal life. And during that life, there will be ‘suffering’ from the abnormalities in functioning.

The research of Rene Spitz into infants deprived of being touched is an eloquent and impactful testimony to the results of deprivation of certain kinds of necessary environmental input (in this case, touch) at early stages of development. Basically, the infants withered physically and emotionally, and died very young.

Ways of Compensating

As for plants and most animals, they pretty much have to take what they get of these necessary environmental inputs. The stuff is either available in the right amounts and kinds at the right times, or the organism, in its attempt to get its needs met, grows crooked and ends up defective.

For example, a plant seedling will grow in the direction of more adequate light, and it will put out roots in a way which actively moves in the direction of more water – even if those ‘stretches’ and ‘bends’ weaken the seedling. [You could probably easily find an image of an excessively ‘leggy’ seeding to insert here.] A tree grows crookedly to seek ways around obstacles, and to minimize damage from environmental input in the form of less-than-optimal wind strength.

For human beings also, what they need is either available when necessary or not, and if not, growth is crooked.

An infant experiencing deprivation, especially during a critical period of some aspect of its development, tries hard to get its needs met despite the circumstances, because its very existence depends on it.

Humans have a uniquely greater capacity; however, beyond what the plants (and baby animals) can do to try to cope, and not just take only what they are given. Built by Nature into the capacities of the young human organism is the capacity for consciousness, for awareness. In the infant, this capacity is less developed than it is in adults, but nonetheless it exists and operates in its own way, in a way suitable for that young age.

If a human infant is experiencing abnormal environmental input and conditions, because its very existence depends on getting those needs met, Nature, via consciousness, provides specific ways to try to compensate for the lacks or abnormal inputs. Nature, via consciousness, gives infants the capacity to initiate behaviors which involve trial and error and are aimed at meeting the needs; the infant can ‘try harder.’ Compared to a seedling or baby animal, a human infant can generate more varieties of trial and error behavior, and actively get and actively adapt to feedback about the success of those trials.

Developing a Sense of Self

Now let’s apply all this to the specific human need for the kind of interpersonal (environmental) input from the primary caretaker which would enable the development of a Sense of Self. This is a survival need, and Nature provides infants with ways of trying to meet these needs if they are not getting the normal, necessary, ‘mirroring’ of themselves as a ‘Self’, as an independently-existing human being (Natural Sense of Self) (rather than a pawn in the caretaker’s emotional games, a means to get their own unhealthy needs met).

In order to survive, a human infant needs a way to develop some way to regard or refer to themselves as a ‘being,’ or ‘Self.’ She subconsciously knows she will have to find a way to get relevant/substitute input, if the necessary-for-health input is not being experienced.  (That necessary-for-health input would be in the form of being regarded by the caretaker as a real, independent, autonomous, ‘being’ having a right to exist as who you are.)

So, subconsciously, as a way to survive and try to get input to try to meet this unmet need, she engages in trial and error, evokes approval from the caretaker in the absence of the necessary ‘being regarded as a “real person”’, gets an emotional ‘high’ from the approval, (feel-good-about-self) and from that, just like a scab Nature provides to cover a wound, the infant grows a (substitute-) structure, for lack of the Natural way to experience herself as a ‘Self.’

This structure is distorted, unhealthy, abnormal, and suffering-causing,  but it’s the best Nature can do to provide some sort of survival for the deprived infant, by getting a toxic substitute (approval based on performance of certain behaviors) for healthy mirroring which would have been ‘I see you as a real human being, not a means to my personal ends.’

Remembering How It Was

Now I have to talk about something which seems different, and then tie it back in.

Once awareness develops further, it cannot ‘go back’ and get into the exact state of awareness it was, earlier. Thus, as adults, we cannot really ‘remember’ our infant consciousness, what it was like as we experienced it back then.

Nonetheless, from our adult perspective, we can look as outsiders and surmise what must have been going on in the infant consciousness given what we observe at the later stages of its development. This surmise will be inaccurate, because for example we’ll be attributing deliberateness and language which really wasn’t going on there, but it’s the best way we can describe what we think was going on.

What was really going on was simply the functioning of infant consciousness as Nature designed it to function at that stage of development of the organism. As adults, we can say this was ‘subconscious’ functioning of the human capacity of consciousness, but that is somewhat different from the ‘subconscious’ we have as adults, when, with the help of language, we have what we refer to as our ‘conscious mind’.

Bear with me now. I am going somewhere with all this preliminary groundwork I’m laying out here.

How Infants Cope around Sense-of-Self Input Deprivation

OK, here’s how it all comes together. When the infant is not receiving the amount or kind of environmental (in this case, interpersonal) input. Nature has programmed as necessary for its development (of a Sense of your Self) at this stage, then, as described above, the infant’s subconscious has the capacity to do more than just passively accept whatever it’s getting. Nature has given the infant’s subconscious mind the capacity to do more, to adapt to external circumstances in a way which permits continued survival and maturing, even though in a stunted and distorted fashion.

The infant’s consciousness can actively do something to try to get what its ‘natural intelligence’ ‘knows’ is needed at that stage for it to develop normally into the necessary Sense of Self. That ‘doing’ and its consequences are what this Theory is about.

Development of a Sense of Self: This Theory’s Topic

A Sense of Self is a subconscious awareness of your independent existence as a definite and unique human being. A normal (natural) Sense of Self  includes your awareness that you exist as a definite and unique human being simply by virtue of the fact that you exist at all. The Sense of Self is one of the central structures, a central and essential part (spine) of the natural anatomy of every person’s consciousness/Psyche.

The absence of a Natural Sense of Self is deemed by the Theory as the root cause of many ailments and dysfunctional lives. This Theory is about what happens when the kind of input needed by infants in order to develop a normal Sense of Self, is insufficient in amount or inadequate in kind. This Theory describes the natural ‘instinctive’ response of the infant to this unmet need during the critical period of development of a Sense of Self. That instinctive response leads to the trial and error phase of engaging in Early Childhood Survival Strategy and leads eventually to the development of a Substitute-Sense–of-Self-oriented System.

Where the reader goes next … General Introduction to the Sense of Self Section

or to… The Tree Metaphor explained