My Intact Self
by David A. Yeats LCSW

I have used the term “intact self’ over the years a lot in my practice.  Over time, I see that my understanding of the idea has changed.  In general, the way I have talked about the idea—which I have incorporated into several posts—is the notion of taking myself seriously, which includes, among other deliberate strategies, the following:

-slowing things down externally and internally enough to notice, sense, feel, and know.
-telling the truth (acting with integrity)
-being as conscious as I can as much as I can
-learning about my past injuries and wounds and deficits
-working to heal and to make myself whole
-loving myself/loving others
-honoring myself/honoring others
-respecting myself/respecting others
-practicing self soothing, liking myself, being alone, and managing my emotions
-creating enduring, open, truthful, caring relationships (with myself and others)
-nurturing myself and others
-changing what I can, accepting what I can't
-setting boundaries and building bridges
-taking 100 percent responsibility for my behaviors
-trusting my intuitive truth
-learning, growing, striving
-enhancing well being

I believe that the better we are at incorporating strategies such as these, the more we’ll experience a sense of feeling like “an intact self,” but it seems to me now that these strategies  become more important and desirable as we move though our lives and move through the stages of human development.  We don’t start there.

Using the Spiral Dynamics description as an example, we move through value (and goal) oriented stages—staying alive, safety and security, power and action, stability and purpose, success and autonomy, egalitarianism and humanism, quality and responsibility of being, and synthesis and renewal—and as we do, our idea of “self” grows as we evolve through each stage. As infants, toddlers, and children we gradually become more aware and can begin to verbalize that we are a self.  Newborns don’t have that capacity, but all of us, as we move through childhood (and on into old age!) incrementally become more aware, and, for example, by the time we are teens, we are pretty clear we have a self, and it ain’t what our parents have told us it is!

The significant “variable” that changes from one stage of development or time of life to another is our degree of awareness, our consciousness. Not just consciousness of the world though, but also self-consciousness, or as developmental theorists say, our “self-reflective capacity.” It is this capacity to observe ourselves over time and space (along with our ever increasing potential capacity to verbalize what we see) that makes us distinctly human.  We know of no other species that has those capabilities.
What we are conscious of shapes our self definition, and thus, depending on what we are conscious of, the notion of “intact self” changes too.  We might say, simplistically, that infants are conscious of “mom,” two years olds of “me,” teens of their peers, twenty-somethings of their independence, thirty-somethings of the rules of the game, and forty-somethings of striving and achieving…and so on.

Any sense of intact self depends on what we are after, and what we value.  For an adolescent, the pursuit of an intact self may mean breaking curfew; for a church-goer, following a religious creed; for an entrepreneur developing a new product line…  If and how we pursue the strategies we listed above, depends very much on one’s consciousness or awareness of what is important (of value) to them.

Intact self at any developmental stage involves an effort to see the “bigger picture” that gives meaning to life. Hand in hand with self-reflection is the demand for us humans that we somehow create meaning.  At each stage, looking at the big picture, we will create meaning that, by definition, is different than the meaning we created at any other stage.

The first six stages, using the terminology of Spiral Dynamics, are referred to as the first tier, the “survival” tier. The last two of the stages that have emerged to date are referred to as the second tier, or the “being” tier.  What that means, in very simplified form, is that those humans who evolve to the later stages of human development, (a small number), make meaning for themselves not based in the physical world of survival as much as they make meaning from a bigger picture view that goes beyond the physical…to the spiritual, or perhaps to one of the seven other “dimensions” that science has elaborated.

In the being tier, one’s sense of self incorporates more and more of what exists—from an identity that includes certain human groups (my church, my political party, my religion, my friends, my town, my state, my country, my nationality, my race, my gender orientation, etc.) to an identity that more and more incorporates all of humanity in a way that my compassion, sensitivity, and advocacy extends to all of the human race, and beyond to all of being.  My sense of self moves, in the second tier, from defining myself through ever clearer boundaries, to defining myself as a part of all that is, as a part of the oneness—in a gradual and continual process.

For many, the idea itself of an expanded sense of self that involves more than the physical sounds farfetched or nonsensical.  And yet there are many people and groups today that aspire in that direction.

The “intact self” at this level of awareness lives from a clarity of awareness, a knowingness, a reverence for life, an absence of violence, fearlessness, non-attachment, and wholeness—terms which Deepak Chopra describes as “emergent spiritual properties.”  But this is not the spirituality of the first tier.  It is neither magic, nor mythic, nor religious.

If we grow to the point that our perspective on who we are is so broad as to exclude nothing from it, it is painfully logical that we would live our life from the values of “quality and responsibility of being, and synthesis and renewal.”  At this stage, our personal well being is the well being of the planet and everything on it, and beyond.  The healthier and happier each person on the planet is, the healthier and happier the individual at this level of awareness is. The healthier our environment, the healthier and happier we are.  The healthier and happier the Israeli or Palestinian on the other side of the gun, the happier we are.  The healthier and happier our relations with other groups, other countries, other values and beliefs, the healthier and happier we are, at that stage.

There is a growing sense of the unity of it all at this stage that guides and directs one’s thoughts and actions.  Susanne Cook-Greuter, in her descriptions of the later stages of human development, (The Magician and the Unitive), as with Spiral Dynamic’s “Yellow” and “Turquoise” stages, documents the pool of individuals (based on decades of research and hundreds of thousands of interviews) that do live from this orientation that we are describing.

It is clear that, given the range of levels of awareness that are the stages of development, that the notion of “intact self” means different things, depending on one’s personal growth to date.  Still, at every stage, one feels intact to the degree that
-they like themselves, and treat themselves with regard (secure attachment)
-they value awareness, and seek to become more conscious
-they seek well being
-they act as best they can to maximize the positive and minimize the negative
-they actively and consciously work to eliminate the dramatic, triggering, and traumatic 
experiences of the past, by focusing on the present and acting deliberately to 
incorporate the vales they are living versus the values they were raised with
 -they are deliberate and participate with others to co-create a better world, both internally, 
as well as externally
-they are empowered, and regardless of past experiences, they do not feel or act as 
victims, and
-they listen to, trust, and act on the intuitions that emerge from their inner being, their 
core sense of what is good, and true, and beautiful.

Lastly, as we have said elsewhere, the primary motivator for humans is our feelings.  And our feelings result not from our experiences, but from our interpretations of our experiences. And our interpretations change as we mature and grow, (that is, as we come to a greater awareness and consciousness).  We have greater awareness which leads to a greater sense of possibilities, options, and empowered action. We can act from feelings that lead us to ever greater well being and joy to the degree that we expand our awareness and come from a place of “quality and responsibility of being, and synthesis and renewal.”  With those values in mind, we discover we are more, have more to give to this existence, and feel better about the life we are living.




1  Buddhism is based in the unity of existence, as are other eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions. Eckhart Tolle eloquently links the self with all of existence through the Power of Now. Barbara Marx Hubbard, Andrew Cohen, and many others articulate the future of our evolution as individuals and as a species. Ken Wilber spearheaded the birth of the Integral Institute, a kind of think tank/university, in partnership and involvement with many of the forward thinking leaders of our time, such as Susanne Cook-Greuter, Don Beck, Deepak Chopra, Roger Walsh, Neale Donald Walsh, Robert Kegan, Andrew Cohen, Warren Farrell, Genpo Roshi, Bill Harris, George Leonard, Michael Murphy, Caroline Myss, Dan Millman, Tony Robbins, and Marianne Williamson.  Bruce Lipton, and many others are rethinking the biology of the brain and uncovering distortions in our thinking about the ways genes function, with new insights into the connection between science and spirit. 
Wayne Dyer, Steve MacIntosh, Russel Targ, Michael Cremo, Peter Russell, Carter Phipps, Gay and Kathleen Hendricks, Dawson Church, and Greg Braden, among countless others, have written and talked about the dramatic shift of worldview that second tier suggests. The list is long, while media coverage is short and cynical.