Thursday, May 1, 2008

Our Unique Identity


by Lawrence H. Staples
author of Guilt with a Twist

Ultimately, the creative act of self-development results in the formation of our unique identity. It is the most particular manifestation of our self. We all have a unique identity, not just Picasso or Einstein or Beethoven or Frank Lloyd Wright. We are not conscious of our unique identity until we have done a lot of work on our selves. People who study art, music, literature, or architecture can identify the painter’s, composer’s, author’s, or architect’s work without seeing a signature. They know that the painting was by Caravaggio or Manet, or that a piece of music was written by Stravinsky or Wagner, or a book by Hemingway, or that a building was designed by Louis Kahn or Frank Lloyd Wright. The creative product of the artist is his signature, and we recognize it because we have studied his work.

Each of us also has a unique signature. But, we must pay attention to our selves and do our own work in depth, if we are to recognize our own signature. We must do this for the same reason we must study artists to know their works. Thus, an important part of the work of discovering our selves is creative production and in-depth analysis. With time and effort we can come to know and recognize our own special signatures. Our physical identity is more readily visible and accessible than our psychic identity. There is always something unique in our physical identity; for example, the parents and siblings of identical twins can usually tell them apart. We have mirrors and can see our physical selves.

It is far more difficult to “see” our psychic selves. There are no psychic mirrors readily available to us, unless we had exceptional parents who could fully, without harsh judgment, reflect our selves back to us. We may still be able to see our psychic selves if we find a therapist who will do for us what our parents could not.

Creative work can also help us see our selves. Creative work is a mirror that can reflect our selves back to us if we pay enough attention.

In his book, The Restoration of the Self, Heinz Kohut wrote at length about psychically wounded people and the therapeutic methods he used to help them. He found none more effective, or so essential, as creative work. He found, importantly, that it made no difference whether the creative work was deemed good or artistic by any standards. The simple process of doing creative work helped restore the self. It is as if nature plants within us a built-in remedy for our worst affliction, the affliction of being separated from large parts of ourselves. We experience this separation as a kind of inner civil war that divides us internally. It produces the pain and suffering inherent in any civil war, whether in our internal world or outside. It seems that the human urge to do creative work, to heal and restore our wholeness, is a compensatory impulse and blessing that arises from the psychic civil war that wounded us. In my own work as a psychoanalyst, I have witnessed the truth of Kohut’s findings. I have watched patients grow in wholeness as they began to work creatively in a variety of media that helped them recover and restore cut off parts of themselves.

Creative work actually serves as a kind of inner parent that compensates for the flawed parenting we may have had as children. Creative work mirrors us in a way we were often not mirrored by our parents. Creative work mirrors us for the simple reason that we can see projected in it, if we look and interpret carefully, our own psychological and spiritual selves. Mirrors in all their manifold guises help restore the wounded self.

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