The System of Self

Here’s a checkpoint for Archeology of Self, a marker of where I’ve been, and a sense of where I am going.

Best I can tell, my Self is a complex adaptive system. There does not seem to be a central authority or a clear method to how my Self operates. It’s a marvel of emergent behaviors, spurred by independent agents of forces. It’s not to say that there’s nobody home, but I am just not seeing a degree of order or organization that I would typically attribute to a logic-driven device. My Self looks more like weather than a computer.

In this system of Self, I can discern four forces. In examining how I am in the world, from feelings to actions, I inevitably end up finding these four forces at the root. I call these forces the Fundamental Needs, since they seem to be at the core of all of my Self. These four Fundamental Needs are:

  • The need for Integration, to be part of a larger whole, in harmony with others, to feel a sense of belonging.
  • The need for Differentiation, to be my own unique self who is apart from others, to feel a sense of agency.
  • The need for Safety, to feel comfortable, safe, at ease. I use the phrase feeling at home as a handy moniker for when this need is satisfied.
  • The need for Fulfillment, to self-realize and fulfill my potential, to feel a sense of life lived with a purpose.

These needs are in pairwise, orthogonal tensions. The Integration is in tension with Differentiation, and the Fulfillment is in tension with Safety.

A diagram showing two orthogonal (in a shape of a cross) Fundamental Polarities. Vertically: Fulfillment and Safety. Horizontally: Differentiation and Integration

These pairwise tensions form the Fundamental Polarities. As far as I can see, the entirety of my Self is the outcome of the incremental learning process to manage these Fundamental Polarities. What I consider “Self” is a product of participating in this beautiful paradox, the Riddle of Existence. Though outside the scope of this exploration, my intuition is that this riddle is not unique to my Self. I see glimpses of it in the writings of Csikszentmihalyi, Hollis, Kegan, Wilber, and others. Wilber sketches out something very similar at the beginning of the Brief History of Everything.

I also notice that there are agents that emerged as a result of these forces being applied to the system of Self. These agents embody each Need. The way I understand it today, the incremental nature of learning led these agents to be rooted in the unconscious mind, using fear as a signalling mechanism. Each agent acts as a defender of the Need and perceives a threat when its Need is not being satisfied. Since the Needs are indeed always in tension, these agents perceive the Fundamental Polarities as an unresolvable conflict, a constant threat to my existence.

Thus, I call these agents the Existential Fears, one for each Need. Each Fear catastrophizes the outcome of the Need not being satisfied, as a brute-force method to exert the influence in the system. Each Fear has a go-to response that is embodied by the unconscious mind:

  • The fear of Annihilation, coming from me perceiving my need for Integration under threat from my need for Differentiation. The catastrophic outcome is that of becoming a completely disconnected, invisible to others, and thus removed from existence. The go-to response for Annihilation is to conform.
  • The fear of Dissolution, perceiving my need for Differentiation under threat from Integration. As the catastrophic outcome, it is about losing my own sense of self and ceasing to exist through dissolving into the shapeless mass of others. Dissolution’s go-to response is to stand out.
  • The fear of Destruction, perceiving Safety under threat from Fulfillment. The catastrophic outcome is me being physically destroyed. The go-to response for Destruction is to hide.
  • A fear of Decay, perceiving Fulfillment under threat from Decay. The catastrophic outcome here is rotting alive, gradually decomposing. Decay’s response is to act. It’s my DO SOMETHING! agent.

Existential Fears form the same pairwise polarities, the Existential Struggles,  laid over the corresponding Fundamental Needs:

A diagram showing two orthogonal Existential Struggles. Vertically: Fear of Decay (Act) and Fear of Destruction (Hide). Horizontally: Fear of Dissolution (Stand out) and Fear of Annihilation (Conform).

These agents are the origin of my suffering. Because they are so radical (the outcome they predict is the literal ceasing of existence), embodied (operating in the unconscious mind), and in conflict with each other, the struggle appears as hopeless and impossible to ever resolve. Each agent operates on a mission to satisfy a fundamental Need, which is difficult to argue with. However, each is independent and doesn’t consider the larger system at play, and is unaware of the Fundamental Polarities.

The Fears constantly compete for attention, and the center of conflict is always in motion, in an unending tug-of-war: first, the Decay is predicting that I will rot alive if I don’t act now, then Destruction immediately pipes in with certainty of doom if I do act now, then Decay gets in a “nuh-uh”, and the melee continues. There is an intense, internal conflict that goes on among the agents. Without the ability to see this conflict, my consciousness only captures a tiny fraction of the full perspective, showing up as boredom, anger, depression, anxiety, shame, etc.

This suffering is nearly constant, fluctuating from big upheavals where I am conscious of it–like actively feeling angry–to unconscious micro-suffering where I don’t even realize it’s happening, manifesting as unease or tension. In this system, the moments of peace are rare and unlikely.

One of my intentions for self-work is to influence the system of Self by discerning more signs of suffering and providing more evidence to the unconscious mind about the nature of polarity. Because the Fears are so well-entrenched, it’s been challenging. But I am already seeing signs that the system is pliable. I recently realized that I no longer find myself suffering consciously. When I detect a micro-suffering, I am able to eventually not believe the Fears and get back to center. And I know that every one of those exercises evolves my system of Self. I am curious to see how.