Category: Psychology (general)

(Re)presentation of the Self

The Chinese New Year celebrations have come and gone, and I’m reminded — for the second time in as many months — of new beginnings and the chance to reinvent ourselves and our lives.  Some cultures view a person’s position and outward presentation as stable and perhaps even pre-determined; others, including my own culture-of-origin, envision an endless opportunity for recreation of oneself.

From a psychological perspective, how we present ourselves to others is not fixed but fluid, and we make decisions every day toward this goal.  It’s an interactive process, however, dependent not only on the choices we make but on the perceptions of others; we as humans are continually projecting from our own subconscious what we imagine others to be.  So how much of our self-representation is actually within our control?

Who am I?  What aspects of myself do I want to reveal to others?  What are my strengths?  How can I build on that?  If I want to show self-confidence to the world, what does that look like?  When I think of someone I know who exudes self-confidence, what gives me this impression?  Is he at ease physically?  Does she speak with authority of her topic?  If I genuinely feel the qualities I wish to project, and I focus on them, and I analyze others who exhibit the same, I’ll learn to create – and allow for – the presentation that I desire.

Yes, “allow for” – as, while we may perceive that we have the quality we wish to project, we don’t always give ourselves permission to display it.  A woman who is self-confident, for example, may be viewed as a leader in one setting, sexy in another, and threatening in a third.  Society and our own inner beliefs can dictate what characteristics we exhibit, and to what degree.

And how can I be aware of my own self-presentation, yet not become self-conscious?  While I want to consider the qualities and characteristics that I’m portraying to those around me, I don’t want to continually second-guess myself or to worry about what others might be thinking of me.  It’s a delicate balance.

The Buddhist practice of mindfulness can be most useful.  By increasing awareness of detail, both internal and external, yet not attaching strongly to any particular aspect, one can gain a deeper self-understanding; this leads to modification of those characteristics that we consider “negative”, while allowing our strengths to emerge.  Naturally, then, we outwardly manifest a more authentic “self” while not attaching our self-worth to the perception, or projection, of others.

Kung hei fat choi, everyone.  And happy (re)presentation of your Self.

Elder Power

“Don’t forget me,” my Amish great-aunt said in her soft voice as we parted ways following my beloved grandmother’s funeral in America.

“I hate old people!” a 22-year old Korean girl said, as she flopped down into a chair in my office in Seoul.

We, in modern societies, have largely forgotten our elders.  And we’re suffering to the point of collapse as a result.  We’ve broken a pattern that carried us through the ages, one of intergenerational mentoring and sharing of lives, and we are without an anchor, without a guide, bumping our way in the dark.  We’ve developed a variety of methods for housing and taking care of our elders, but we’ve marginalized them, and rendered them useless.  We’re beginning to realize what we’ve lost, and to reclaim it — them — hopefully, before it’s too late.

There are signs.  The Elders ( are a group of world leaders and social activists who have formed to offer guidance on a global scale.  The 13 Indigenous Grandmothers ( travel the world to say prayers and bring a message of hope, to encourage people to value anew the earth and indigenous ways. Earth Elders ( form local groups for the purpose of building sustainable communities.  The Elder Wisdom Circle ( has more than 600 senior members who offer advice via an online network.  A precursor to all of these, the Raging Grannies ( formed in the mid-1980s as an activist group.

Highlighting the power of elders in a recent op-ed column in the New York Times (, David Brooks calls upon elders to lead the way for all of us.  He tells us that people report being happier in later life than in middle years, that the brain actually functions better in some ways and compensates for aging, that gender roles begin to merge as women become more assertive and men more emotionally sensitive, and that generativity — passing along one’s knowledge and skills to younger generations — is a primary goal.  Psychologists no longer view this as a period of decline but as a viable developmental phase.

With disaster all around us, from the recent economic turmoil to terrorism, wars, political crises, environmental concerns, pandemics, and more, we can no longer afford to buy into a “youth culture” model that suggests change comes about only as initiative from the young and upcoming generation.  We must also remember and rely once more on the wisdom of those who have lived many years with a wealth of experience and perspective to show for it.  We must call upon our elders to lead the way — and they must be willing to accept the call.

Eldering…and being Eldered.  No, the word “elder” has not yet become a verb, but perhaps it should.

And I want to say to my great-aunt, now dead for some years, and to all elders: “Don’t give up on us. We need you.”

Post-Traumatic Growth

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” [Friedrich Nietzsche].  We all know inherently that, in facing the challenges in our lives, we have the potential for gaining new strength.  In biological evolution, this phenomenon is described by the phrase, “survival of the fittest”.  The same can be said for psychological development.

The Post-Traumatic Growth model fully acknowledges the pain caused by traumatic events, while also seeing the opportunity for personal growth that they provide.  In the PTG approach, the therapist first aids the trauma survivor in looking at his or her pre-trauma characteristics (attributes and resources), the characteristics of the traumatic incident(s), and resulting challenges to be addressed.  A process of “rumination” is undertaken to transform both thoughts and feelings related to the trauma, to reconnect one’s past and present experiences and sense of self for the purpose of transformation in the forms of problem solving, meaning-making, and anticipating in order to build a sense of future and purpose.  The survivor’s social context is also taken into account as a strong factor of support in this process.  The intended outcome is one of growth: in a new sense of self, in improved relationships, and in one’s philosophy of life, or worldview.

This model in no way trivializes the very real pain and disruption of self that a survivor of trauma has experienced; it simply uses the opportunity for growth as a focal point.  Rather than viewing a person’s response to trauma as something to be fixed, or a syndrome to be cured, both therapist and survivor are encouraged to use the history of trauma and present resulting challenges as a catalyst for change, the beginning of a transformational process.

Transpersonal psychology supports this model, moving away from a ‘disease’ concept toward one of balance and the potential for transformation.  The spiritual and / or metaphysical realms are considered as well, which can be especially powerful for this approach to healing. Further, somatic psychology, which includes the physical body in its view of mental health, can aid in the somato-energetic reintegration process of trauma recovery.

In the face of trauma and its aftermath, there’s hope.


So many of us have experienced trauma — physically and/or emotionally, a one-time event or repeated incidents, firsthand or secondhand experience…and in many combinations and accumulations thereof.  Some would say that life is a series of traumatic occurrences, beginning with birth itself.  But what actually constitutes trauma?

The experience of a traumatic event and the onslaught of emotions in its wake have been called, “a rupture with the past”; life begins to be viewed in terms of an idealized ‘before trauma’ period and the turmoil that follows.  Survivors’ beliefs are challenged;  assumptions regarding personal identity and a global sense of benevolence and safety are shattered.  There’s a tendency toward feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, perception of danger lurking in every corner,  and a lack of attachments or sense of future. The unconscious mind not only can’t let go of the trauma; it believes, independent of one’s conscious thought, that the trauma is still occurring, right here and right now.

In the one-time, often cataclysmic event, such as the tsunami of southern Asia in December 2004 or the earthquake in Haiti just 10 days ago, these feelings are obvious, expected, understood — and, with time and the support of loved ones, and perhaps some assistance, survivors can move beyond the experience.  For the types of trauma that occur over time and multiple events — abuse of any kind, including neglect, raging, or abandonment; mass starvation or epidemics; life in a war zone or high crime area, or that of the child soldier, or the gang member — these feelings are often more profound, always more entrenched, and typically less understood.

There’s another type of traumatization that’s less frequently acknowledged: the secondhand, or vicarious, version, such as in the child who is witness to a sibling’s abuse, the children of an abused parent, the humanitarian worker who repeatedly comes to the aid of those who have experienced extreme trauma, and even the psychologist or other health care provider who specializes in trauma care.  Just as in secondhand smoke, the vicarious effects of trauma can be insidious.

Many people are familiar with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Need”, which indicates in what order our most basic needs must be met; a sense of safety and security is at the very foundation, just above physiological needs such as food, water, and breathing.  Trauma of either type, or — most challenging of all — in combination and cumulative, represents the destruction of one’s sense of safety and security, and without this foundation, all other aspects of life become secondary.  It is hugely difficult to experience a sense of joy, or of loving and being loved, or of trust and developing attachments, when one’s sense of safety is absent.

The good news is: a feeling of security and higher levels of functioning can be restored.  In most cases, particularly in repetitive or combined forms of trauma, the assistance of a psychologist who specializes in this area is necessary.  One doesn’t have to discuss and surely is not meant to re-experience the trauma itself; while discussion in the form of a therapeutic method called “narrative reprocessing” can be useful, the possibility of re-traumatization must be carefully avoided. The feelings associated with trauma and the sense of its immediacy must first be contained, to reintroduce the experience of safety.  Following this, a step-by-step process is needed to reduce and ultimately resolve negative emotions and behaviors that have developed as a result of the trauma, and to renew feelings of control, hopefulness, and meaning.

There are many types of trauma therapies, including “power therapies” such as EMDR; a treatment approach unique to and optimal for each individual can be determined by a psychologist with knowledge of and experience in this area.  Integrative psychotherapy not only allows for a combination of therapeutic methods; it also includes somatic therapies to help reintegrate a full experience of the physical body when safety has been restored and the timing is appropriate.

Like the shaman, the psychologist can help one to search for those “lost parts of the soul”, and to return them to where they belong.

Despite the devastation that trauma wields, a rediscovery of hope, joy, and well-being — of balance — can be achieved.