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I’d like to introduce you to a very general process for dealing with psychological problems. As far as I have been able to find out it was first formulated by Dr Fabian Rouke in the 1950’s. It is called the “onion skin model” of the self, it has three layers. This is my interpretation of his model based on my own experience. The big advantage of this process is that you can start with just about anything: you don’t need to have a big issue, you can start with a vague discontent or something unfocussed.
The first layer is our everyday self. This is usually positive. We like to ‘put on a happy face’, to look as if we are doing fine and handling all our challenges. Usually this is untrue in some ways. So this is in some ways fake. This part of our selves has a brittle quality.
And we fake it for good reason. We fake it because there is a second layer. This is the part of our self that we believe is unacceptable – certainly to others and usually to ourselves as well. These are the parts of ourself that we don’t want to look at and wish just weren’t there.
Usually we learned that parts of ourself are unacceptable from those around us – usually quite early in our lives. Sometimes our early carers explicitly told us that parts of us were bad, other stuff we picked up by example. If we had to eat our meals whether we liked them or not we probably learned that our sensations are not good – they are to be ignored. If sex was never discussed we likely concluded that our genitals were something to be ashamed of.
Usually what we were told is easier to get a handle on than the models we copied. With what we were told there is something ‘out there’ to fight against. Taking on the models is trickier – it seems like it was all us.
First Step: Moving from the first to the second layer.
Sometimes, in places where we feel accepted, we reveal some of the second layer. Usually we hesitate and wonder if we can trust the other person enough to let them in. We feel like we’re taking a risk. If we feel like the other person is reliable and accepting enough we will let them know at least a little about this second layer of our self (the part we don’t like).
We also deal with this layer by ourselves. By ourselves it is also about acceptance. This can be trickier even than revealing this part of our self to another. We have perhaps spent a good deal of our lives and energy hiding this part. It may even be that hiding some parts of our self is now a habit, we do it automatically. We try to catch our selves hiding and find out how good we are. At this point others – friends or therapists – can be helpful: people who won’t be tricked. The other person’s job is just to point out what we’re doing.
When working with this layer by myself I have it helpful to listen to the part I don’t like. This part of me may have lead to problem behaviour or behaviour that had consequences I didn’t like. But when I listen to this part of my self I find that what the part wants it healthy. The basic need this part has is good: we have developed unhelpful strategies for meeting the need but the need, and our desire for having it met, is entirely legitimate. We may need to learn other ways to have this need met but that is a different matter. Learning ways to express or meet the needs of a good part of us is very different to hiding a part of us that we feel is bad.
Why bother with all this work? And it can be hard work. Because of the third layer.
The third layer
The third layer is the core of who we are, our authentic self. When we are in touch with this part of ourselves our lives have a different quality. It doesn’t mean that our live circumstances change automatically or that we don’t need to learn new things. But we have a sense of being in touch with what is going on and the people around us – and this is profoundly nourishing.
Getting to know the parts of us that have been ignored, disowned or suppressed leads us back to our real self.
Second Step: Moving from the second to the third layer.
There comes a point where we feel like we have ‘faced our stuff’. We feel tired and that we have come to the end of ourselves. And we have, in one sense. It is the end of the second layer of our selves.
The challenge at this point is perhaps to wait or perhaps to explore more deeply. At this point we need to feel the energy that has been bound up in keeping the second layer of our self hidden. If we just feel tired and don’t feel this new energy then we aren’t at the third layer yet. We don’t reject the second layer of the self – we reclaim it. The part of our self that we rejected (for good reason at the time) we now have as part of us again. All that energy that was ignored or suppressed is now part of us again. We will often feel elation and a sense of release when this happens.
When we are in touch with our authentic self we don’t ‘drift around on cloud nine’. We have a sense of being very grounded, while also having a sense of meeting life. For me this has meant the development over the years of what I call an ‘elated-calmness’: a buoyancy and flexibility. For others it will naturally be different, in accord with who they truly are.
Third Step: Takin’ it to the streets
What is often the high of breaking through to the third level doesn’t last. It is the elation of release and relief. While we will be living without the old fighting with ourselves, and this will mean we have much more energy, this is different to the high of the breakthrough.
Being in touch with our authentic self in one sense is just natural but in another sense means learning a whole new way of living. All the defenses and strengths of the second layer were important. They were a way of guarding and caring for our authentic self. Now that we don’t do things in this way automatically we need to develop other ways of relating to ourselves and others.
We may need to learn to listen to our bodies, and this can take time. We may need to know how to greet people politely without being fake (I don’t claim to get this right every time!). We still need to develop skills for our jobs and recreation. We still need to learn how to relate to people we find difficult. The world is still what it was: it doesn’t change magically just because we have. The difference is that we now live without fighting ourselves, and this feels so much better.
I hope this isn’t too vague. I was going to use lots of examples for each part of this process but it is already a long post. And that would have doubled or tripled its length. If you have questions please leave them in the comments. I have found this process incredibly beneficial in my own life, perhaps you will in yours.
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