#5 Selfisms


With the fourth post caught in mental traffic congestion, this fifth post in our Mind and Self series consolidates the various concepts of the self we have learned this semester. If you haven’t already, catch up on our first post on Piecing the Mind and Self and an early discussion of the social self in The Space Within Us.

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Our sense of self is not as stable as we lead ourselves to think. The current discourse is sensitive to the multiplicity of selves within us. Not only are we constantly changing, evolving, growing in our ‘personality’, we maintain, repress and juggle different selves at any given time. Our experiences shape who we are, and what we think of ourselves. By definition then, our personal identities are always already changing.

The self is formed on the basis of multiple ‘components’, according to Carl Rogers: (i) the view of oneself; (ii) one’s self-esteem or self-worth; and (iii) one’s idealised self, or who one desires to be. We can further think of selves as private and public, concealed and revealed, real and ideal, true and false, and authentic and performed. All of these ‘selves’ are constantly shaped by others – our belonging to a family, community or social group, our beliefs and values in relation to a larger congregation, and the thoughts and judgements of those closest to us all have an effect on our view of ourself, our self-worth, our ideal self and how we portray ourselves to others and to ourselves.

When no single venn diagram can subsume these multifarious, often divergent sub-definitions of the self, we will study them under the umbrella of the projected self, the perceived self, the divided self and the ‘essential’ self.

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The Projected Self

The projected self refers to the externalised identity that is observed and judged by others, often in public settings. Hence, it can also be reworded as one’s public self.

The projected self can be intentionally performed but is not necessarily false. How one acts and speaks in public can indeed reflect one’s internalised sense of identity.

The poems we studied at the start, ‘Richard Cory’ and ‘One Art’, underline these dimensions of the projected self perhaps more clearly than in Woolf:

  • Richard Cory‘s outward mannerisms are all that the persona witnesses, while his private self remains opaque. Why does he put a bullet through his head? Is he wounded by his fame, or are there deep-seated sorrows not made known? The reader is exposed only to his projected self, and he can only infer.
  • The persona in ‘One Art’ evidently rehearses and repeats the mantra ‘the art of losing isn’t hard to master’ as her projected bravado in the face of grief.
  • The first two acts of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? present Martha, the ‘goddam destructive’ woman whose rambunctious presence is heard not only in her words and actions, but also seen in the expressions of those around her. This boisterous facade is betrayed by her vulnerable self at the start of Act Three.

With frequent repetition, even the most inauthentic performances can be internalised and perceived as part of one’s selfhood. Consider the narratives told by Albee’s characters to convince not just others but also themselves about how they are variously good daughters, good mothers, or innocent witnesses.

Analysing the projected self in literary texts is for the large part a straightforward affair. What a character says or does on the surface opens up the reader or audience’s reading. Other characters’ views of that character (e.g. George’s view of Martha) serves to inform our perception, or confirm what we already feel about him or her.

On the other hand, the projected self can be a facade constructed to prevent others from seeing the frailty of our true emotions. Hatred can conceal love, anger can cover anguish, aggression can belie fear, and nonchalance can bury trauma. These examples are especially pertinent to Martha‘s perceived self, as we will examine in the next section. Elsewhere in Woolf, we also recognise denial, childish behaviour and isolation as defence mechanisms.

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The Perceived Self

The perceived self, also known as one’s self-image or private self, is the internalised identity residing in the mind. For the character or person, how he sees himself is always ‘real’ and stable.

However, this internalised self is not objectively ‘true’ or inherently reliable. All of us can confidently proclaim to know people, friends even, whose haughty perception of their own ability or self-worth is higher than what it is. The person next to us might be experiencing the ‘imposter syndrome‘, a devastating lack of confidence that occurs in spite of achievement or acclaim.

Because the perceived self resides in the mind, it is opaque to the reader or audience of a literary text. The words said by a character, persona or narrator are by definition verbalised, projected, externalised; the private self in literature is never really private… in the same way that a private social media account is not actually private (yes, indeed, in case you didn’t know).

Through the use of the first-person point of view in novels and poems, the reader is  brought into the mind of the narrator / persona. Privy to his thoughts and emotions on an immediate level, we can decipher how he perceives himself:

  • In ‘Chinese Workers on the Evening Train’, the persona makes known his supposed suffering and self-pity, his disdain for the Chinese tongue, and his prejudice against the “strangers” on his way home. While the persona deliberately refers to “our lips”, we read from the italicised text the persona’s attempt to define his own identity partly through the marginalisation of the “other”.

The dramatic form is premised on the interactions of characters (i.e. relationships) rather than narration. Monologues and soliloquies / asides (i.e. characters addressing to the audience, typically in Shakespeare) allow the playwright to render the minds of his characters to the audience, externalising their thoughts, emotions and perceived selves:

  • Martha‘s monologues in Act 3, first to nobody on stage (98-99) and subsequently in Nick’s presence (100-102), reveal her vulnerabilities, her love for George and her awareness of her self-sabotaging ways (see next section).
  • In Measure for Measure, Angelo‘s ‘anguished soliloquy’ at the end of Act 2 Scene 2 confirms for the audience his temptations and corruptions of course, but more crucially demonstrates his awareness of his own hypocrisy.
  • In Woman in Mind, Susan‘s interactions with her imaginary family are arguably  figments of her perceived self as an ideal mother and wife. Her final monologue in the play reflects a perceived self – “the most important person in all our lives” – completely disconnected from reality and certainly, the audience’s perception of her (108-109).

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The Divided Self

The disconnection from reality (or psychosis) that Susan appears to undergo, R. D. Laing writes, is the outcome of a “divided self”, the inner tensions between our perceived identity and the projected self we present to the world. For some individuals, their insecurities and fears trouble them to the extent the self becomes dissociated from its external world of people and events, and instead relates to objects of its imagination and memory (Swartz). This struggle between our disparate selves can be observed in the above examples. From Woman in Mind, Susan’s sense of self is divided between how she sees herself (evinced in the illusory family) and how she is seen in reality (in her interactions with Gerald, Muriel and Rick). In Woolf, the crying, fragile Martha emerges from the screaming, brash Martha the audience has been acquainted with.

The inner tensions felt by Martha and Susan, or indeed any character, can be grouped in two broad spectra of emotions, ranging from their least to most intense forms:

Self-compassion, self-consolation and self-pity

Understanding, forgiving and accepting yourself as you are are rather necessary steps in an emotionally fulfilling sense of self; the failure to do so will lead to an inward aggression (see next section) that may go so far as to destroy our sanity.

In both plays, the female protagonists create fictional or imaginary family members who empathise with them, console them and love them. The idealised George in the monologue offers to “do anything for” Martha and admits to having “misjudged” her (98). Lucy appears at suitable moments in Woman in Mind to assure Susan that “we love you” and that “you’re just the most marvellous person – ever” (66).

Self-criticism, self-hatred and self-loathing

“I disgust me”, Martha tells herself (101). If we are sometimes our best friends, we are often our own worst enemies too, judging ourselves harshly for every little mistake we commit. That constant feeling of unworthiness, of not being good enough for other people, haunts us. We turn criticism we’ve heard from others (a mother, father or spouse) into an inner voice of critique. George is the epitome of this, publicly performing Martha’s voice in front of Nick as part of his self-assessment. Such self-hatred can itself be a mode of self-destruction, where the self actively turns against itself to realise its own guilt or effect its own lack of fulfilment.

Self-sabotage and self-destructiveness

“How can we explain such self-destructiveness? In large part just how plain unnerving happiness can sometimes feel to us. Though happiness is what we all fundamentally want, for many of us, it isn’t really what we know. We grew up in and learned to make our peace with far darker scenarios. The prospect of happiness when it in the end appears can therefore seem a bit counter-intuitive and not a little bit frightening. It isn’t quite what we expect… we may prefer to choose what is comfortingly familiar, even if it’s difficult, over what is alienatingly fulfilling or good. Getting what we want can feel unbearably risky. It puts us at the mercy of fate. We open ourselves up to hope and subsequent possibility of loss. Self-sabotage may leave us sad but at least safely, blessedly, in control.” (The School of Life)

Self-sabotage can be exemplified once again in George, when he intentionally encourages Nick and Martha to have a go at ‘Hump the Hostess’ in a series of affirmative and imperative sentences (90-92). Susan’s persistently hurtful and insensitive remarks to her real family can likewise be seen as self-defeating; while she yearns to be perceived as a good mother and wife, her actions towards Rick, Muriel and Gerald trail far behind this idealised image of herself. Honey and Martha’s self-delusions, shown to be conscious and deliberate in Act Three of Woolf, can be considered in the same light.

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The Essential Self

In the context of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, we can understand the essential self as the authentic, real, core or ‘true’ identity, devoid of illusions, performances, games and deception, each of themselves representative of a ‘false’ identity projected to the world around them.  The unembellished, simple yet tender moments of the closing scene signify George and Martha’s ‘essential selves’. Everything that comes before is a performance for an imagined audience, a less-than-reliable narrative, twisted games, delusions about themselves or each other, or a mutually agreed-upon fiction.

While the essential self can be identified in opposition to the characters’ projected self, it is not the equivalent of the perceived self. This distinction is more obvious to Ayckbourn’s audience: Susan’s self-image as a loving and loved mother (in her illusions and reality) contradicts her more irritable, sarcastic behaviour towards her real family. Unlike Martha and George, Susan never really confronts this darker, ‘real’ side to her identity as she meshes her ‘truth’ into her illusions.


Ultimately subjective and malleable, the essential self  is characterised by honesty and self-awareness. In Albee’s more optimistic vision (relative to Ayckbourn), it is part of an ongoing process, in which which his characters allow, or force themselves to learn, to accept, to love themselves.

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