108: Do You Have a “Self?”

A podcast fan named Chuck asked if we could have a podcast devoted to the concept of the “self,” or the Buddhist concept of “no self,” so here it is.

David emphasizes that there are two issues. First, can your “self” be validly judged as not good enough, as inferior or even worthless? Or, can your “self” be validly judged as more worthwhile, or even superior? And is it really true that some people are more worthwhile, or less worthwhile, than others? Do more worthwhile, or less worthwhile human beings exist?

Second, do we even have a “self?”

Fabrice talks about the history of the concept of ego. For example, Freud divided the human mind into three parts: the id, ego and superego. Do these really exist as “things,” or are they just concepts, or metaphors for talking about the mind? When you try to think about the “ego” or the “self” as a thing, that’s when you get in trouble.

David argues that if you believe that someone people are “more worthwhile” or “less worthwhile,” you’d have to define what a of worthwhile human being is. Once you define it, you can always show that your definition has one of these problems:

  1. It applies to all human beings, and therefore has no meaning.
  2. It applies to no human beings, and therefore has no meaning.
  3. It is inherently meaningless.
  4. It does not apply to you.

David and Fabrice illustrate these traps with one of the most common definitions—thinking that your worthwhileness as a human being depends on your achievements, productivity, or success. They conclude that can only judge specific thoughts, feelings, or behaviors as more or less worthwhile, but there’s no such thing as a more or less worthwhile human being.

Next, they raise the question, “Does the ‘self’ exist?” And “What is the self?” David argues that the notion is nonsensical, or that there is no such “thing” as a “self.”

Although the discussion in today’s podcast is philosophical, and may go over the heads of some people, it has practical importance because most people who are struggling with depression and anxiety do believe that they are “not good enough,” and that their “selves” are somehow defective or flawed. Letting go of this notion can help to speed recovery, as well as what the Buddha referred to as “enlightenment.”

David expressed the hope that we may be able to return to this theme in future podcasts and perhaps find ways of making these potentially healing and liberating concepts more understandable! These concepts can take time to grasp, so be patient with yourself.


* * *

Coming Soon!
October / November / December 2018–
Cool Workshops for You!

TEAM-CBT Methods for the Treatment of Relationship Difficulties

Step by Step Training for Therapists

by David Burns, MD and Jill Levitt, PhD

Sunday October 28th, 2018 (9 am-4 pm PST)

Live in Palo Alto plus online streaming

Learn how to reduce patient resistance and boost motivation to change. Master skills that will enhance communication skills and increase intimacy with loved ones. This workshop will be highly interactive with many case examples and opportunities for practice using role plays.

Join us for a day of fun and inspiring learning on site in Palo Alto
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To register, go to the Feeling Good Institute

or call  650-353-6544

* * *

Rapid Recovery from Trauma

a two-day workshop

by David D. Burns, MD

October 4-5, 2018–Pasadena, CA


November 1-2, 2018–Woodland Hills, CA

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or call 1-800-258-8411

Register Now!

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November 29 and 30, 2018–San Francisco, CA (in person only)


December 3 and 4, Portland, Oregon (in person and live streaming)

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18 thoughts on “108: Do You Have a “Self?”

  1. Hi David and Fabrice,

    Thanks a lot for doing a podcast on this topic. It is really fascinating to me. I was a Christian all my life and I think for me, religion was not very healthy. I believed of course I had a self, it was called my soul and my body was just a temporary house for it. I also learned that my worth depended entirely on God. If I accepted Jesus as my savior, He redeemed me from my sin and made me a worthwhile person. That is all fine and good, but what about all the people that don’t accept Jesus? The fact that they were apparently worthless always bothered me. And then when I started to lose my faith, I thought that since God did not seem to be there any more, I had lost the only thing that gave me worth. Luckily, I found your book Feeling Good, which taught me that we are all worthwhile – or all worthless, it doesn’t really matter! It is still hard for me to cast off that lifetime of indoctrination, especially because I still go to church regularly because it is so important to my family. I am sure not all Christians feel the way I do and maybe I misunderstood everything, but the things you and Fabrice had to say about the self and self-worth are very healing for me. Also, thanks for addressing my relationship question in your recent podcast. My wife and I are doing a lot better and I am trying to break the ice and generate discussion by taking the first step and sharing my feelings.

    • Thanks, TJ. I appreciate your thoughtful comment and believe me, I get it! I totally grasp what you’re saying, and see things in much the same way. i think that this kind of dialogue might be rather threatening or disturbing to some religious individuals. I think it can be so hard, at first, to have our cherished beliefs challenged. My Dad, a minister, did not seem especially open to challenges of his thinking, although he was very successful and I think did a lot of good for may people. But it just boggles my mind how people want to look down on others in the name of this or that religion! But feelings of moral superiority (and hatred, too) can be incredibly addictive, maybe like a drug. I’ll forward your kind comments to Fabrice. I appreciated your note, also, because I was not sure we’d done a very good job in the podcast, especially in the “no self” segment. probably will do a bit more in the future, and also a good bit on this in one of the sections in my new book. Warmly, david

      • Good stuff. Thank you TJ, Dr. Burns, Fabrice.

        I’m about to take a coed group of teenagers on a long backpacking trek. we are Buddhist, Christian, and agnostic. To get them ready, I’ll be talking to them about not-self, self as a mystery, and the self as socially constructed to be worn lightly.

        I dig the river analogy and will be sharing it with the kids.

        For what it is worth, Gil over at audiodharma.org distinguishes between no self and not self. I think he’s saying that to deny that any self exists also invites suffering. This probably squares up nicely with Burn’s pragmatic, constantly-unfolding-phenomenon-associated-with-a body-and-a-social-identity approach. Would love to hear from Fabrice on this point.

      • Hi, thanks, and best of luck on your backpacking trek. One additional advantage of giving up your self is that it’s one less heavy thing to have to carry while hiking! I lost my self years ago, and what a relief! david

      • Hi Charlie, Exactly! I have no self but have gotten through the day so far really well. And our little kitty, Miss Misty, seems to love me in spite of my non-selfness! She said to say she has no self, either! But she DOES love cat candy, and petsies! d

  2. Great Poscast guys! I listened to it twice and will probably listen a few more times to let it sink in more. It’s funny how we think if we have all the status and material things then we are ‘better’ than others. Baloney!
    Also, loved Fabman’s story about the transporter to Mars. Heavy stuff!!

  3. Hi David and Fabrice,

    Thank you for all your hard work on the podcast. I listen faithfully to each one and even after many years of learning from your work and using TEAM as a therapist, I still pick up useful tidbits.

    I wanted to give some feedback on the “no self” podcast. For me, the clearest explanation came from David’s comment to the effect of “I’m not a psychiatrist, because there’s no such thing. I’m a person trained in psychiatry” (not an exact quote but captures the gist of it).

    My take on the “no self” is that there is no “self” because “self” is a concept, not a thing. Just like in TEAM where we need a concrete moment in time to work from – because that is REAL – rather than working from a concept like “depression” or “low self-esteem”. Our brains can easily get fooled by concepts, thinking they are real things when they are just communication shortcuts. That’s my take, anyway!

    Warm thoughts to you both,

    Karin Kramer
    Halifax, Nova Scotia

    • Hi Karin, That seems like a clear and elegant way to put it! Very cool! Thanks. david, the “non-shrink!”

  4. I loved the podcast on “self.” It may be the key to curing my low self-esteem. However, I find the concept of all humans being equally worthwhile very challenging. For example, how can someone who is kind and generous, invents useful products or cures diseases be judged as worthy as someone who is a murder, rapist or plain lazy bum? How do you judge someone’s action differently from their self? Please continue to discuss this topic on your podcast. I appreciate the excellent work you do and can’t wait to read David’s new book!

    • Thanks Pilar, You can judge someones’ actions as being more or less worthwhile, or more or less skillful, but I would have no idea how to judge a “self.” I have no idea what a “self” is! There is no such “thing” as a “self,” in my opinion. I used to have a self but was lucky to get rid of it years ago. david

  5. I wanted to share this about the term “be yourself”. A few days after listening to your podcast, I listened to an episode of another podcast I follow called Lexicon Valley. It is a podcast about language and linguistics. But by an amazing coincidence the host talked about the term “be yourself”, which apparently had a much different meaning in the 1920’s and 1930’s than it does today. I thought you might find it as interesting as I did. I was near the end of the episode titled “Happy Birthday OED”, but I went ahead and transcribed the relevant part so you wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of listening to the podcast:

    … The movie was called “Be Yourself”. Now what’s interesting about the movie “Be Yourself”, which survives and therefore of course is in my house, is that it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with self expression or being genuine. The plot is something like Fanny is in love with this boxer who keeps taking dives. It doesn’t have anything to do with confidence, or anything like that, so it’s just one of those things that kinda stuck in my mind. … Then there’s a musical called “Be Yourself”, … once again, why “Be Yourself”? I started to suspect that be yourself meant something different to the people back in the 1920’s than it does for us and finally I found out that it did. There was a silent film comedienne from 1924 … one of her late silent films was recently restored and on one of the dialogue frames someone says “Ah, be yourself, blah blah”. And what the “be yourself” means is “come off it’ – it doesn’t mean “find what you actually are inside, Freud, etc.” And I thought, “There it goes, that’s what they meant by be yourself”. Be yourself basically just meant “ah, go on, come of it” it was just one of those colloquialisms. … Hemingway’s short story, “Fifty Grand”, it’s got fighters, and you find him using it in this same way: “He pushed the rope down for Jack to go through into the ring. The crowd thought that was wonderful. Walker put his hand on Jack’s shoulder and stood there for a second. “So, you’re going to be one of these popular champions?” “Take your hand off my shoulder – be yourself.” So there’s another one of those usages of be yourself. He doesn’t mean find your inner self, he’s saying come off it, go on. …
    Other examples – “Here Comes Mr. Jordon” from 1945. Here’s some dialogue from the movie: “Hey Max, be yourself pal, look …. “ “Will you please remember, he can’t see you and can’t hear you” That clearly has nothing to do with getting in touch with your inner self, it just means relax.

    • Hi TJ, you are right, “be yourself” is just an expression with various meanings, like stop acting so phony. It does not mean, “find some essential self inside of you somewhere”! Thanks! david

  6. Hello, Dr. Burns!

    Thank you for this podcast. I have a few questions. The related question is to ask whether you think the notion of the self is necessary for personal responsibility and strong ethics. Traditional Buddhism, as far as I know, usually puts enlightenment before ethics. I find ethics to be a major source of meaning in my life, and I do not know if I like this emphasis. I get that ethics is often in the way of getting close or resolving an issue, but I feel like saying we have no self is a bit of black and white thinking

    Unrelated questions.

    Can TEAM address problems that aren’t clearly depression, habits, anxiety, or relationship problems?

    For example, I have a patient with very violent sexual fantasies towards strangers. He also cannot seem to be attracted to his wife. He has had some success using behavioral techniques to lessen this desire–one of which you mention in Intimate Connections for increasing heterosexual fantasies and then ones for his wife–I’m also curious whether you still stand behind this?

    He is doing it very reluctantly. Will this affect outcome? How would you deal with resistance in this case? Is it like a habit because he finds it pleasurable? Is there nothing to explore in terms of any depth psychology with these types of patients?

    • Thanks, Alan. To me, ethics is all about actions, not “selves.” To me, “self” is just a nonsensical notion. I can act responsibly (or irresponsibly) without invoking “self.” For example, it is considered unethical for a mental health professional to go into business with a patient, or to date a patient.

      The idea that there is no self is not, to my way of thinking, an “all or nothing” problem. It is more the problem of using language in a nonsensical way. Of course, you can say, “Hey can you come to the hike on Sunday?” And you might respond, “Sure, I’d love to!” Then I might ask, “Can you bring your “self” as well?” What does that mean? It is just nonsense. But this is hard for folks to grasp. The Buddha tried to teach in 2500 years ago, and the philosopher, Wittgenstein, tried to teach similar concepts about how language works in the 1900. But only seven people, it is rumored, understood his teaching when he was alive.

      The material on sexual impulse in Intimate Connections was hopeful, but kind of misguided in retrospect. I am not an expert is the treatment of sexual problems, for the most part, so will leave that the the experts who focus on that type of problem. But yes, these problems are in the category of addictions, habits, and so forth. Sometimes change and control are need, and sometimes acceptance is the better solution. It all depends.

      Thanks for the thoughtful questions! david

  7. As a person who was a school teacher we would often discuss children with behavioral problems. We would say it was caused by low self-esteem resulting from the impoverished neighborhood and until we addressed single parenting and poverty it was hopeless. I always had an issue with that and argued that if the child could be given a positive learning experience rather than focusing on emotional and contextual issues, (however much I knew depression was real), there was a chance of turning the behavior around with engaging lessons. It sometimes worked but school bureaucrats saw it differently and wanted strict behavior. Too bad I wasn’t versed in your “no-self” concept philosophy because administrators were determined that the “self” was fixed by the environment and we had to accept it. Seems like low self-esteem in school were really mood disorders that were conveniently blamed for the child’s permanent failure rather than a lack of creativity by the teacher to engage a child in a meaningful learning experience. Does this make sense?

    • Hi mighti, Thanks, yes this DOES make sense! The Buddha taught all of this, I suspect, 2500 years ago, but sometimes I still feel that I’m way ahead of our time in my thinking. I also get frustrated by the mainstream thinking, in my world it has to do with therapy rather than teaching, but the issues and the resistance to innovation can be equally strong. I am babbling in an overly general way, and almost on a rant, so I will stop. But thanks a ton for your cool note! David

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