Toward a Psychology of Possible Selves

Part of the Culture, Mind, and Society book series (CMAS)


I have tried to write about “a gritting of the teeth” that plays an adaptive role in three lives. I tried to show the will to live, to “go on,” which I sensed in Helen and Benjamin and discovered in myself. Now I want to try to set this in the context of perspectives on the human self that have been developed in the field of psychological anthropology and beyond. I will review some conceptual tools and useful heuristics for thinking about the rich material of human lives. In doing so, I will continue my effort to bring together cultural, psychodynamic, and existential perspectives, but here I will stress how the living self spins its sense of self out of basic psychological capacities for “knowing” and “feeling” as these are applied to suffering.


Cultural Understanding Cultural Conception Somatic Marker Secondary Appraisal Primary Appraisal 
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  1. 1.
    Although wary of the notion “representation,” I cannot pursue the conceptual issues here. A model “structured into” a system does not arbitrarily represent the system but can set system parameters. The model and the system are “really affected” by each other.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This is not a theory of multiple selves, but a way of conceptualizing how existential selves adapt themselves to life circumstances. Ewing (1990) discusses how people have multiple, contradictory, often transient, selfrepresentations experienced as whole or timeless, and describes this as a “theory of multiple selves.” I agree: people often have inconsistent “selfrepresentations” (when we are dealing with self in sense 3). However, I treat the “whole” person (self in sense 1) as the existential ground of this production of multiple self-concepts. What is possible for possible selves might be thought of as a range with limits. What people “can be” allows considerable adaptive flexibility and psychocultural diversity, but there are limits, reasons, as Hollan (2000) notes, “the self can be neither too unitary and brittle nor too loose and fragmented” (546).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    A view he ascribes to Bourdieu (1977), who is sympathetically critiqued in Strauss and Quinn 1997, 44–47.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See also Shweder’s (1991, chapter two) discussion of intentional worlds.Google Scholar

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© Steven M. Parish 2008

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