My Primary Self / Secondary Self Model


My theory about the Self

The primary self corresponds to the actual being – the “soul” – before it is alienated by the secondary self which is formed via socialization.

In the history of development the decisive motor for this quantum leap is formed by cognitive-abstract (digital-sequential) thought processes. These are gaining ever greater influence over the “thoughtless” or the averbal-pictorial “thinking” (analogous) of the primary self.

The reference to the soul as the actual being undoubtedly does not fit into the picture of the momentary research. Without getting involved in ideological discussions however, I would like to hold on to this entity perceived over millennia in all cultures. In particular for me it contains also the quality of life.

The primary self

By the primary self I understand an authentic, original self out of which – due to socialization – a secondary self emerges.

In my opinion the primary self is a state that developmentally is initiated at a very early time, i.e. intra-uterine, prenatal. Based on the findings of modern infant research as well as my knowledge of Eastern thinking, I postulate an aperspectival, intrauterine world of experience of the being still resting in the womb. I describe this stage following NAGEL as aperspectival, as “view from nowhere”.

This “view” is characterized by the absence of the visual channel of experience; tactile-kinesthetic and auditory perceptions thus are given a particularly high priority.

DORNES notes that “already intrauterine acoustic signs are perceived with remarkable accuracy”; the maternal voice is therefore perceived preferentially immediately after birth.

The fetus most likely not only gets an “idea” of the mood of its environment through its hearing, but is also able – through the different sequences of sounds – to gain information about the temporal sequence of certain events.

The uterine being in the state of the primary self lives in its largely weightless and aperspectival world completely related to the present. However, hormonal and physiological influences that trigger maternal feelings in the fetus occur already intrauterine. (In the sense of an early tuning or the “rob of feelings”, as shown by studies of VIRGINIA DEMOS).

With birth the aperspectival perception of the uterine being changes over to the pictorial perception of the increasingly visually active infant. I refer to this stage as the analogical stage. The self of this stage resembles the experiential world of the competent infant described by DORNES, who – different from what it was long assumed – is not symbiotically connected to his mother but experiences himself as a sensorimotor (and psychic) holistic entity.

The mental world of imagination up to abstract thinking is not yet developed at this stage, the holistically present world of images determines the experience. With the appearance of the “self”-knowledge (“I am”) one could speak of a pre-socialized “primary I”.

The experiential world of the primary self remains with the infant as long as he is not yet alienated from himself by the socialization process.

During this time, similar to the aperspectival phase in the uterus, he still feels in harmony in a state of primitive trust. According to METZINGER an essential property of this “primitive” analogous state is its body-related presence. The absent does not exist; what is, is. For METZINGER, the “analog representation” includes the “simulation of structures of worldly things” which is characterized by their similarity, but just not by the immediately real representation of these things. In my understanding, however, the latter are mentally generated representations, thus exactly that which for me contradicts a real here-and-now experience.

The secondary self

The digital stage of the socialized adult

Early socialization influences begin to have an effect on the primary self which trustingly “bathes in existential love”, on the infant in a state of primordial trust. Various survival strategies as well as a “drive to reason and to think” increasingly determine what happens. The fact that the neutral term “survival strategy” hides an emotionally highly charged state, namely anxiety and especially its basic form, the fear of death, is of fundamental importance in our context.

This anxiety in combination with parental psychic deprivation – anxiety and psychic deprivation are ultimately only two sides of the same coin – decisively co-determines, indeed virtually defines the secondary self.

The toddler now encounters a bipolar world of either-or, which is divided into positive and negative, before and after, above and below, etc.. In particular the experience of time changes from the immediate present reference of the primary self to a horizontally determined time axis: the secondary self relates almost exclusively to an experience of time progressing from the past to the future and is thus strongly influenced by these two lines of visions of time.

Interestingly the two groups also differ in terms of their perception of feelings: those who live in the here and now experience strong feelings, while those who distance themselves from their immediate space-time situation perceive their feelings in a correspondingly dissociated way, i.e. detached from themselves. These people tend to rationalize and to feel less intensely and thus to behave in a way that our “cool” society appreciates.

From what has been presented so far it shows that the secondary self, which emerges due to developmental selection processes supported by society and encouraged via subtle parental pressures that awaken fears of psychic deprivation, gradually displaces the memory of the primary self. The transition from analogous, averbal pictorial thinking to digital, cognitive abstract thinking forms a decisive factor in this process.

But as we have just seen also the emotions which are closely linked to body perception are affected by this process. They are accessible to voluntary control only to a limited extent and thus are a pronounced disruptive factor for socialization. If by my parents I am loved not for my own sake – as I am – but only because of my achievements, I adapt to their demands, I develop a secondary self and I increasingly separate myself from the primary self.

To avoid feeling the primary pain as well as the secondary psychic pain resulting from psychic insults, the self develops strategies in form of a cascade of repressions, which is composed of secondary feelings and substitute acts.

“Disembodiment” and spiritualization

The replacement of the primary self’s experiential world by strategies of the secondary self led to a serious alienation of people from their bodies. In the course of socialization the original body base was replaced by an apparently sustainable network of foreign influences, laws, norms and rules – external and internalized.

With increasing cultural differentiation this distance from the base has been widened. This way we lost our foundation; through the loss of body reference we can no longer perceive the information of the body and of the gut brain. Thus we alienate ourselves from real needs and feelings and ultimately from our true being.

It is basically extremely true to reality and makes sense that the secondary self is often – and increasingly – experienced as “split”, “multiple” and contradictory, both by outsiders and by the affected persons themselves. Somatizations and psychic disorders can be understood as a failed attempt of the primary self to point to the primal pain (which is only indirectly “felt” and has been repressed via “disembodiment”).

The more we enter into relationship with the body by undoing the one-sided emphasis on ratio, the more we come “home” in the sense of a clearly graspable, personal and increasingly reliable point of reference. Not only do we thereby find our way back to a stable self-reliable starting position; this down-to-earth reference is also the prerequisite for being able to love ourselves and especially our body without restriction.

Undoubtedly it is also an existential question that with the age-related decay of this body basis the spiritualization in the sense of a developed spirituality can become a life task. Yet it is dangerous to try to accelerate the maturing process by skipping the ground-laying first step.

Back to the primary self via individuation and transstepping (Überstieg)

One way for the adult to connect the two states of self (primary self as well as secondary self) arises in the process of transition between main and zen reality respectively between the state of the secondary self and that of the conscious primary self.

However this transition is bound to important preconditions: As an adult, I must inevitably pay the price of socialization – the experiences of the secondary self. In elaborate “work on the self” I have to rediscover – on the level of the secondary self – the core of my “personality”: In a further developmental step, the conscious individuation process according to C. G. JUNG and preferably spiritually up to the experience of the “not-me”.

But the conditions for the transstepping are high and far from the social ideal. For the vast majority of people they are hardly up for discussion; not only because the necessary conditions are (not yet or no longer) available for them, but also because many people see in the primary self at most a primitive state of romantic-nostalgic regression.

Nevertheless I believe that we have no choice, both as individuals and collectively, but to take this arduous path and consciously reconnect with the source if we are to succeed in stopping the destruction of our foundations of live.

Thus we acknowledge priorities as they are anyway predetermined in our neural circuit connection. With the increasing importance of computer chips which are biologically integrated there is however the danger that this anchoring which is millions of years old and which is already disturbed by socialization will be completely lost; a loveless and soulless world would be the consequence.

Primary basic feelings and secondary substitute feelings

The feelings of primary resp. secondary self are not the same.
Primary feelings come from the body,
secondary feelings from the head,
that is, from the mental imagination.

Since the primary self is clearly different from the secondary self it is obvious that the feelings of the two self-states also differ; its access is not only at the level of the primary self that we are able to feel primary feelings. We are also able to perceive primary feelings at the level of the secondary self; however, access is usually more difficult or we do not consciously perceive them.

What does this really mean?

The life of the body is a life of sensations and emotions. The body feels real hunger, real thirst, real joy under the sun or snow, real pleasure in the scent of roses or in the sight of a bush of lilacs; but also real anger, real sorrow, real tenderness, real warmth, real passion, real hatred, real grief. All these emotions belong to the body and by the mind they are only registered.
This quote by D. H. LAWRENCE sums up the primary emotions: It describes the replacement of the pure body perception by the processing through the mind.

Because the truth of bodily sensation has given way through socialization to the preconceived opinion of the mind, our emotional sensation is often “second-hand”. This sensation has little relation to the physical human being; it has become anonymous and manipulated by legislators and opinion leaders such as advertising, media, and fashions. Unlike the primary feelings of the primary self as described by LAWRENCE, the secondary feelings of the secondary self are “input-independent”. They are deprived of their immediacy and are often altered by strong influences by the repressed unconscious.

But to separate the feelings completely from the body is impossible. WILLIAM JAMES has already pointed out that a completely disembodied human emotion is a fiction.

In other words: What secondary feelings have lost in intensity they “gain” in complexity and opacity. The temporal delay that occurs via the secondary excitement loops – which take place in the area of the neocortex – means that these feelings are often ambivalent and lead to inadequate action or even the inability to act.

For ANTONIO DAMASIO the decisive difference is that in addition to the primary feelings there are newly hypothetical conscious considerations of the thinking process which are linked with conceptions. In general he sees great advantages for human decision-making within the possibility that feelings are closely linked to the thinking process. Although there are pathological disturbances of the self for him they refer unmistakably to the self of the socialized adult which I call the secondary self.

Cross-linking old experiences with new stimuli

Socialization pressure leads to the formation of somatic markers that link new stimuli to old experiences and in particular to their emotional and physical “memories”.
At the neural level somatic markers depend on learning in a system that links certain categories of objects or events to the unfolding of a pleasant or unpleasant bodily state. … The crucial neural system for acquiring the signaling apparatus of somatic markers is the prefrontal cortical field which largely also contain the system for secondary emotions.” 

The somatic markers do not work exclusively with the involvement of the body. This can also be bypassed namely when the somatosensitive cerebral cortex works as if it were receiving signals about a certain body state. DAMASIO assumes:
Since we have been ‘tuned in’ to the surrounding social conditions in infancy and childhood most of our decision-making processes are likely to be shaped by somatic states related to punishment and reward. … As we grew older … A new level of energy-saving automation developed.

Partly decision strategies became dependent on ‘symbols’ of somatic states. The extent to which we rely on such ‘as if’ symbols rather than on real states is an important empirical question. I believe this dependence varies from person to person and from situation to situation. Symbolic processing can be beneficial or harmful depending on the situation and circumstances.

In our context, METZINGER’s remarks about the crucial importance of the body reference within the framework of his model of the self are of interest: “In normal waking states we always are already from the first moment of waking up until falling asleep embodied subjects of experience.

The importance of body feeling

That means: “We are given ourselves in a very specific way, namely through our body feeling. … Because of this special situation – the anchoring of generating internal signals – the self-representation becomes one of the most stable and constant elements of phenomenal reality, because it is the most reliable part of our multimodal inner image of ourselves. Even if we do not think, do not have feelings and do not move: The permanent signal source on which our bodily sensation is based does not cease its activity – we have been ‘always already’ given to us as bodily and embodied beings. …

Usually it (the body sensation) does not enter into complex mental simulations. On the other hand it is closely related to a phylogenetically very old class of mental models whose occurrence is clearly correlated to activities of the limbic system.

So even a philosopher admits that the body reference is of fundamental importance for the stabilization of these models even if the crucial and “higher” ones of his mental self-models and worlds are initiated by inner imagination.

For scientists imagined feelings are no different from feelings triggered by real stimuli. In agreement with LAWRENCE however, I believe that we as individuals must do everything we can to counter the general trend – which seeks its salvation in the blurring of the boundaries between real and virtual worlds. If we give up the reference to the body, we open the door to that rampant arbitrariness which turns our everyday life into a virtual madhouse.

The body indicates the range of feelings

An indication of the emotional realm in which we are currently moving also comes from the words we are using and the way we are communicating them: Words that are close to the body and spoken in a calm manner tend to belong to the primary dimension while top-heavy, argumentative, proclaimed factual words belong to the secondary dimension.

Since primary feelings are closely connected with the spontaneous readiness of the body to react, the freedom to uncontrolled, spontaneous body reaction is an absolute prerequisite for being able to experience them. Once we have tamed our musculoskeletal system with the character armor as described by WILHELM REICH feelings, completely detached from the body, are used as defenses and character masking.

Facial expressions have frozen into a mask, movements are stiff and artificial. Real and artificial, vital and virtual are no longer distinguished; we take the secondary feelings as “hard cash”.

In contrast to “second-hand perception” – insofar as they are not consciously experienced – primary feelings virtually always lead directly to action: we relate to someone, express our affection or dislike, approach someone, or turn away.

Secondary feelings are substitutes for action. Because they are meant to convince the other that one cannot act, they must be exaggerated and dramatized. The one who has them feels weak and the others who are present also feel weak and called to do something, but realize that nothing helps anyway.” (HELLINGER)

DIANA RICHARDSON makes a similar division between primary and secondary feelings as I did, although she does not refer to different self-perceptions. She calls primary feelings “feelings”, secondary feelings “emotions” but without referring to different self-states.

The most essential differences from primary to secondary feelings

Primary emotions

∙ Context of the primary self
∙ Body reference, in action
∙ Immediate “input”-reality

∙ “Feelings” according to Richardson
∙ Expression in succinct words that are working

∙ Related to the present
∙ Immediate expression, spontaneous

Being love and
Primary excited love

Secondary emotions

∙ Context of the secondary self
∙ Mental reference, imagination
∙ Virtual, body-independent
“as-if” reality
∙ “Emotions” according to Richardson
∙ Abstract factual reference

∙ Past and future essential
∙ Always “retrieved,” “stuck,” “consistent”
∙ Context of purpose love and secondary excitement love

» More articles about the primary and secondary self
Dr. Kurt Eugen Schneider
Dr. Kurt Eugen Schneider