The Divided Self | R.D. Laing

Summary of: The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness
By: R.D. Laing


Welcome to the summary of ‘The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness’ by R.D. Laing. In this riveting exploration of the human sense of identity, Laing delves into how babies and young children develop self-awareness and how a stable sense of self emerges as they interact with their parents. The book further investigates the concept of ontological insecurity, where individuals struggle with the certainty of their existence or authenticity, often manifesting into severe personality disorders or even schizophrenia. Throughout this summary, we will explore the fascinating concepts of false selves, detachment from reality, and the relationship between isolation and mental well-being.

Developing a Sense of Identity

Infants learn to develop a stable sense of identity through interactions with their parents or guardians.

Have you ever wondered when you truly began to understand yourself and your unique consciousness? As it turns out, babies are not born with a sense of identity. They have not yet experienced life as themselves or encountered anyone else. Infants are not aware that they are distinct beings, separate from others around them, nor are they aware that they alone have direct access to their own experiences. They learn to understand themselves and the world through interactions with their parents or guardians during infancy.

When a young child expresses a need, such as crying when hungry, their parents provide a response. As this process is repeated over time, the baby begins to understand that their behaviors elicit specific reactions and that they are a separate entity from others around them. They also begin to understand that the beings around them, like their mother and father, are aware of their existence.

During this process of self-discovery and the development of self-consciousness, parents treat the baby as a complete and self-conscious person. They interpret their children’s behaviors as expressions of personality, shaping the child’s emerging sense of self. Nonetheless, not all children develop the same understanding of themselves and the world.

The Harm in the Ideal Child

Many parents dream of a child who never cries and obediently follows orders, but such an ideal child may lack self-expression and suffer from a weak sense of self. It’s crucial for parents to respond to their children’s needs and expressions to help them develop a healthy sense of self. Preternaturally obedient or excessively honest children may not be naturally “good,” and could be showing signs of a personality disorder or a fear of losing their sense of self. This ideal child may never attain a safe sense of identity or self if they lack the initiative to do something on their own or distinguish their own wishes from their parents’.

Overcoming the Fear of Disappearance

The fear of being inadequate is common, but for some, it turns into ontological insecurity which can lead to schizophrenia. Such people feel unsure about their personality and whether they are real, which is why they tend to seek validation from others. Being perceived and recognized by others can make them feel grounded and alive. However, isolation can exacerbate the condition and trigger panic attacks. Infants also display this fear of disappearance when separated from their mothers. Social interaction is therefore essential to help ontologically insecure individuals feel reassured. Despite this, they often avoid social contact, making it a significant challenge that needs to be addressed.

Insecurity and Identity

Insecure individuals fear being engulfed by others, making it difficult for them to form intimate relationships. They crave validation but often question their agency, fearing that they belong to someone else. This ontological insecurity creates a dilemma where they need others to feel real, but the fear of losing themselves stops them from forming close bonds.

Have you ever had the experience of bonding with someone, only to find they later pull away or reject the relationship altogether? Perhaps you’ve seen this in others as well, where a connection that seemed to be forming fades abruptly. According to philosopher and therapist, Caroline M. McLaughlin, this phenomenon is rooted in ontological insecurity. Ontologically insecure individuals struggle to form intimate relationships due to the severe fear that they will be engulfed by others. Their sense of self is so fragile that they need significant distinctions between themselves and others to feel autonomous. As a therapist, McLaughlin notes how fittingly her clients can respond when she has an “aha!” moment about their behavior. The client may feel that McLaughlin’s understanding of them means they have lost their distinct identity and merged with her. This insecurity creates a catch-22-like situation: ontologically insecure people need others to feel real, but contact with others threatens their fragile sense of identity. As a result, they often feel as though they belong to someone else, questioning their autonomy and agency. Although they crave validation and connection, the fear of being consumed by others creates a barrier to forming close bonds. Understanding these dynamics can help provide insight into why some people struggle to form deep, intimate connections.

The False Self

In the book, we explore how ontologically insecure individuals, fearing contact with others, retreat into isolation or hide their true self to preserve their sense of self. This leads them to develop a false self that presents a different persona to the world while keeping their true self hidden. The false persona initially serves as a protective shield for the real self, but over time it becomes more and more autonomous.

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