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Through the False Selves Toward the True: How to Do Course-Based Psychotherapy

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]

The Psychotherapy supplement says that “everyone is both patient and therapist in every relationship in which he enters” (P-3.II.1:3). This means that the process of psychotherapy is going on all the time. People are asking us for help all the time and much of the help they are asking for is help for their minds. How, then, do we help them, according to the Course? The Psychotherapy supplement contains a picture of four selves, or four images of the self. I have come to believe that these are the key to understanding our function as unofficial therapists.

1. The Little Self

The presenting problem of virtually everyone who asks for help could be characterized as the little self. This self is called little not only because it stands in opposition to our larger, true Self, but primarily because it is little in comparison to the forces of the world, forces it experiences as largely set against it. The little self is summarized in this passage from Psychotherapy:

This self he sees as being acted on, reacting to external forces as they demand, and helpless midst the power of the world. (P-1.In.3:6)

Beliefs and feelings within the little self

[You feel] so vulnerable and open to attack that just a word, a little whisper that you do not like, a circumstance that suits you not, or an event that you did not anticipate upsets your world, and hurls it into chaos. (T-24.III.3:1)

[You view] the self as weak, vulnerable…and endangered, and thus in need of constant defense. (P-2.IV.6:1)

[We regard ourselves as] in a place of merciless pursuit, where we are badgered ceaselessly, and pushed about without a thought or care for us or for our future. (W-pI.195.9:3)

You [believe you] are helpless in the face of what is done to you. (T-21.II.2:6)

You…see yourself as tiny, vulnerable and afraid. (T-21.V.2:3)

You…believe that you are helpless prey to forces far beyond your own control, and far more powerful than you. (T-21.V.2:5)

You…perceive yourself as weak and frail, with futile hopes and devastated dreams, born but to die, to weep and suffer pain. (W-pI.191.9:1)

You [feel] helpless, pitifully tied to dissolution in a world which shows no mercy to you. (W-pI.191.9:3)

You [see] yourself as…under attack and highly vulnerable to it. (T-18.II.1:6)

You see yourself as vulnerable, frail and easily destroyed, and at the mercy of countless attackers more powerful than you. (T-22.VI.10:6)

You assail the universe alone, without a friend, a tiny particle of dust against the legions of your enemies. (W-pI.191.3:2)

[Your mind is] torn with doubt, confused about itself and all it sees; afraid and angry, weak and blustering, afraid to go ahead, afraid to stay, afraid to waken or to go to sleep, afraid of every sound, yet more afraid of stillness; terrified of darkness, yet more terrified at the approach of light. (W-pI.121.3:1)

I see myself as imposed on. (W-pI.35.6)

I see myself as failing. (W-pI.35.6)

I see myself as endangered. (W-pI.35.6)

I see myself as helpless. (W-pI.35.6)

I see myself as losing out. (W-pI.35.6)

We feel like a puppet with the world pulling our strings

Helpless he stands, a victim to a dream conceived and cherished by a separate mind. Careless indeed of him this mind must be, as thoughtless of his peace and happiness as is the weather or the time of day. It loves him not, but casts him as it will in any role that satisfies its dream. So little is his worth that he is but a dancing shadow, leaping up and down according to a senseless plot conceived within the idle dreaming of the world. (T-27.VII.8:4-7)

The central dynamic of the little self

The central dynamic of this little self is very simple. This self, being small, is far weaker than the huge forces of the world. And these forces are, for the most part, against it. The world is attacking it. Being weaker, this self loses. It does not fulfill its hopes and dreams. It cannot keep itself safe. It does not succeed in its goals. Its existence is always precarious. It is losing the war against the world, and this determines how it feels about itself. It feels like a loser. Its self-esteem is as little as it is. “The ‘Hero’ of the Dream” speaks of life as one in which “a tiny you” seems to be pitted against “an enormous world,” one that has “different dreams” about you and your life (T-27.VII.11:3).

2. The Inflated Self

No one likes being the little self. We all hate it. And so we seek a way out. The way out we seek is the inflated self. We are like those snakes who puff themselves up to look bigger and less easy to mess with. Or we are like that frog in Aesop’s fables who, in order to impress someone, puffs himself up so much that he finally explodes. The inflated self has the confidence we need to give us stability. It has the power and abilities we need to win our war with the world. And it has the sense of status and significance that our little self failed to deliver.

Therapy and the inflated self

According to Psychotherapy, people generally go into therapy to make the switch from the little self to the inflated self. They feel like a 98 lb. weakling and want to instead become Charles Atlas.

The patient hopes to learn how to get the changes he wants without changing his self-concept to any significant extent. He hopes, in fact, to stabilize it sufficiently to include within it the magical powers he seeks in psychotherapy. He wants to make the vulnerable invulnerable and the finite limitless. The self he sees is his god, and he seeks only to serve it better. (P-2.IN.3:3-6)

In other words, rather than really changing his sense of self, he simply wants to give it muscles.

[In the wake of the belief that on the way to truth lie endless mazes of complexity that one can never get through] comes the inevitable belief that, to be safe, one must control the unknown. This strange belief relies on certain steps which never reach to consciousness. First, it is ushered in by the belief that there are forces to be overcome to be alive at all. And next, it seems as if these forces can be held at bay only by an inflated sense of self that holds in darkness what is truly felt, and seeks to raise illusions to the light. (P-2.V.1:3-6)

This passage says it all:

  1. We believe that there are forces arrayed against us, which we must defeat simply to survive.
  2. However, we feel no real hope for doing this, since we believe we are the little self.
  3. We therefore form an inflated sense of self to hold these forces at bay.
  4. This inflated self is just a cover over the little self, which we still believe we are. Deep inside Charles Atlas there still exists that same 98 lb. weakling. All the muscles amount to an elaborate act of denial.

Within the belief system of the little self there is no solution. Within that system we will always feel like a vulnerable self at the mercy of a cruel world, a self so vulnerable that no defense will ever be truly sufficient. This strong self that can handle the world, therefore, will really be no more than a cover designed to hide how we really feel. Even if we become this inflated self that is literally on top of the world, deep down we will still feel like the fragile self we were before. We will still be insecure. We will still live in fear.

The inflated self: all the ways in which we seek self-esteem

The inflated self is how we seek self-esteem in this world. We all try to move from the little self to the inflated self. We try to feel better about ourselves and have more confidence. We try to gain certain strengths that make us more valuable and capable. We try to win friends and influence people, and thus prove how special we are. We try to gain a special place in the world that shows what an important person we are. The inflated self represents all of the ways in which we make ourselves more valuable, in which we give ourselves more self-esteem.

Discussion: Can we see our own attempt to become the inflated self, the self that can handle it all, that can win where before we were losing? In what ways have we tried to become the inflated self?

Discussion: As helpers, how do we try to move people from the little self to the inflated self? What do we try to give them so that they can stand on their own two feet and handle a big, nasty world?

Exercise: How Have You Sought to Inflate Yourself?

What are the main ways in which you have tried to gain a greater sense of confidence and security in yourself?
What abilities or strengths do you pride yourself in having?
Do you value your sense of confidence and competence? In what areas, in particular?
What key experiences or events prove to you that you can handle life?
What personality traits do you see as making you valuable and setting you apart?
What things do you value (for instance, literature or punctuality or conscientiousness) that show what a quality person you are?
What kinds of knowledge have you tried to gain to enhance your worth?
What people have you collected to yourself that give you the message that you are special and secure and that you belong?
Can you see that you collected them so that they would give you that message?
What important people do you know, the knowing of whom makes you feel (even a little) important?
What jobs have you sought that you hoped would enhance your self-esteem?
What accomplishments do you see as defining you as someone of value?
What place(s) in the world have you sought in order to be the special person you want to be?
What do you have more of than others?
Who have you tried hardest to be better than?
What about your physical appearance do you take pride in?
What else about your body—its health or strength or preservation—do you take pride in?
What material possessions of yours do you take pride in owning, or want people to know you own?
What are the primary sources of pride in your life?
Have you seen your knowledge of or devotion to or experience with the Course as defining you as someone special?
Have you seen certain traits or experiences of yours along the spiritual path as defining you as someone special?
Do you see your lack of attachment to being special as defining you as someone special?
What do you think would happen to your self-esteem if all of the above things were taken away from you?

3. The Guilty Self

THE ROLE OF GUILT

The real problem, the real source of our low self-esteem is guilt. The little self is a stance of unforgiveness toward the world. It says to the world, “You destroyed my dreams!” That causes guilt. The inflated self is a stance of attack towards the world, in which we try to best the world and end up on top. That also causes guilt. Underneath both the little self and the inflated self is the guilty self, which is how we really feel about ourselves when we believe we are an ego.

Guilt ultimately comes from our decision to separate from God, but that decision is re-enacted every time we attack a brother, in thought, word or deed. Those attacks in the present, for practical purposes, should be considered the source of guilt.

If, before you got into the Course, you were to list all the things in your life that were bringing you pain, in order of priority, at what place on the list do you think your guilt would have appeared? (See if a number pops into your mind.)

If, at this point in time, were you to list all things in your life that bring you pain, in order of priority, at roughly what place on the list would your guilt appear? (Again, see if a number pops into your mind.)

The Course describes our attitudes about the role of guilt in our suffering in this passage:

Once you were unaware of what the cause of everything the world appeared to thrust upon you, uninvited and unasked, must really be. Of one thing you were sure: Of all the many causes you perceived as bringing pain and suffering to you, your guilt was not among them. (T-27.VII.7:3-4)

The true role of guilt: guilt is number one on a one-item list

Guilt is…the sole cause of pain in any form. (T-30.V.2:4)

All weeping is, at root, weeping for lost innocence
And who could weep but for his innocence? (P-2.IV.1:7)

All moods that are less than joyous come from guilt

When your mood tells you that you have chosen wrongly, and this is so whenever you are not joyous…in every case you have thought wrongly about some brother God created, and are perceiving images your ego makes in a darkened glass….When you feel guilty, remember that the ego has indeed violated the laws of God, but you have not. Leave the “sins” of the ego to me. That is what Atonement is for. But until you change your mind about those whom your ego has hurt, the Atonement cannot release you. While you feel guilty your ego is in command, because only the ego can experience guilt. This need not be. (T-4.IV.2:2-3, 5:1-6)

Our job as therapists

Our job is, while the patient is telling us that her problem is how she has been attacked by the world, we have to mentally fill in something they will rarely do for us: that she is really hurting over her attack on the world. Psychotherapy says, “This is never apparent to the patient, and only rarely so to the therapist” (P-2.II.3:4).

Discussion: How can we see the patient’s real pain as being from her own attack rather than from the world’s attack on her? How would this look in our mind?

A thought offered in the class was this: Perhaps we have to first discover this within ourselves. Then we can see it in the patient. Perhaps we must first find out within us that, even when we think our pain is coming from the outside, it is really coming from our own failure to love. It is really the pain of guilt. For instance, I notice that when someone is attacking me, I might feel relatively peaceful for a while. But then I reach a point where I give in to anger. My experience is that it is only once I do that and return the anger that I feel really bad. At that point my pain in the situation seems to quadruple. I feel terribly guilty. And then I am highly motivated to increase the blame I am putting on the other person, because the more I can heap blame on them, the more justified my anger appears to be, which makes me more innocent in feeling it, or so I tell myself. My point is that I only feel really bad and get really blaming once I give into unlovingness towards the other person. Even while I am telling myself that they are causing my pain, the real fact is that my own guilt is the pain I am feeling. If I can discover that in myself, then surely that is the first step to seeing it in the patient.

We may want to skip this step—of seeing the patient’s real problem as guilt—and go straight to seeing the truth in the patient. However, I think that would be an error. This step is crucial. It is not the solution, but it does set up the solution. In any healing process, the perception of what the problem is dictates the whole thing. Whatever you think the problem is, you will aim your healing efforts at it, and tailor your healing efforts to it. If the problem was a broken bone, you wouldn’t spend your time trying to cure the patient’s athlete’s foot. You would obviously aim your efforts at the broken bone. That is what the Course would have us do here. If you see the problem not as woundedness over the world’s attack on the patient, but guilt over the patient’s attack on the world, then I think the solution becomes something like the following two-strand approach that the Course takes:

  1. You, the therapist, see the person as forgiven, as absolved, as sinless. That only makes sense as the solution if the problem is the patient’s guilt. We’ll discuss this next under the heading of the true Self.
  2. You guide the patient to first see his guilt (to hear the dirge he constantly sings to himself, the chant of “God may not enter here”) and then to realize that the solution is for him to learn to forgive. Since his attack thoughts are what convinced him that he must be an evil, guilty self, only his forgiving thoughts will convince him that he is an innocent self.

The Guilty Self

Becoming Aware of Guilt

That the problem is guilt stemming from unforgiveness is virtually never apparent to us

All blocks to the remembrance of God are forms of unforgiveness [which results in guilt], and nothing else. This is never apparent to the patient, and only rarely so to the therapist. The world has marshalled all its forces against this one awareness, for in it lies the ending of the world and all it stands for. (P-2.II.3:3-5)

Most guilt that we experience is pseudo-guilt

You do experience the guilt, but you have no idea why. On the contrary, you associate it with a weird assortment of “ego ideals,” which the ego claims you have failed. Yet you have no idea that you are failing the Son of God by seeing him as guilty. Believing you are no longer you, you do not realize that you are failing yourself. (T-13.II.2:3-6)

How we really feel about ourselves deep-down

You think you are the home of evil, darkness and sin. You think if anyone could see the truth about you he would be repelled, recoiling from you as if from a poisonous snake. You think if what is true about you were revealed to you, you would be struck with horror so intense that you would rush to death by your own hand, living on after seeing this being impossible. (W-pI.93.1:1-3)

Hearing the dirge we sing to ourselves

The hanging-on to guilt, its hugging-close and sheltering, its loving protection and alert defense, — all this is but the grim refusal to forgive. “God may not enter here” the sick repeat, over and over, while they mourn their loss and yet rejoice in it. Healing occurs as a patient begins to hear the dirge he sings, and questions its validity. Until he hears it, he cannot understand that it is he who sings it to himself. To hear it is the first step in recovery. To question it must then become his choice. (P-2.VI.1:3-8)

An Exercise in Hearing the Dirge

Try to think of a time in your life in which you felt something similar to the above statements, even remotely. If so, please write a bit about it here, about the situation and about the thoughts and feelings you had about yourself:

If the thoughts and feelings you had at that time were not fleeting, but were actually a window onto things present all the time in your unconscious, then how are you feeling about yourself down deep?

Now write down every thought that occurs to you in the next two or three minutes.

Now look at each one of your thoughts and see if you can detect, perhaps beneath the surface, a chant of “God may not enter here,” meaning “God may not come into me because I am undeserving, I am guilty.” See if, with each one of the thoughts, you can detect that underlying message, and then for that thought complete one of the sentences below.

For example, let’s say one of your thoughts was, “I don’t think I’m getting the message of this workshop.” You may detect the following underlying message: “God may not enter here, because I am a dense spiritual seeker.”

God may not enter here, because______________________________________
God may not enter here, because______________________________________
God may not enter here, because______________________________________
God may not enter here, because______________________________________
God may not enter here, because______________________________________
God may not enter here, because______________________________________
God may not enter here, because______________________________________
God may not enter here, because______________________________________
God may not enter here, because______________________________________
God may not enter here, because______________________________________

In light of all this:

Is it possible that you are constantly singing a dirge of guilt to yourself?
Is it possible that this dirge is the underside of all your “little self” thoughts and all your “inflated self” thoughts?

4. The True Self

The core of the patient’s pain is his belief that he has sinned and therefore corrupted his nature. His salvation lies in the realization that his true nature is totally undefiled, uncorrupted, untainted. He is still as God created him. He is still God’s Son. His true Self is beyond all change, all stain. Your job as the therapist is to see beyond his belief in being defiled and truly believe he is still as God created him. You must see the guilty self, but then see beyond it. One of the most common errors of the therapist is to see past the patient’s belief in being attacked by the world to his own attack on the world, accept that attacking self as who he really is, and then hope to change him, clean him up, and turn him into a good self. 

Discussion: Do you find yourself falling into the above trap-seeing the patient as the guilty self and then hoping you can change him or her into a cleaned up, good self? How does that make you feel? How do you think it makes the other person feel?