The Disowned Self


The Disowned Self, by Nathaniel Branden, Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1971

Nathaniel Branden's new book THE DISOWNED SELF is, I believe, of major importance, not only to the psychological world but, in particular, to all those who have accepted the writings of Ayn Rand in whole or in part.

In spite of my considerable respect and enthusiasm for many of the psychological implications of Objectivism, I have always been troubled by the idea that one's self-esteem, and therefore self-acceptance, should rest entirely on one's accomplishments; specifically, on the extent, to the limit of one's ability, that one was in rational focus. While on the one hand I very much agreed with this as the seemingly only real basis for judging oneself, on the other hand, I had always felt that this was somehow inadequate. I searched many avenues for a solution to this conflict before arriving at the conclusions I shall set down below.

The part of Mr. Branden's book that I am referring to in particular is the following statement on self-acceptance:

"I am speaking of an attitude toward one's self that is deeper even than self-esteem, and that is a precondition of the attainment of self-esteem; perhaps it is more precise to say: it is the root or beginning of self-esteem. Self-acceptance, in the sense I am endeavoring to describe, refers to a person's basic attitude toward himself, an attitude of self-value and self-commitment, that derives from the fact that he is alive and conscious and himself—a prerational, premoral act of self-affirmation—a kind of primitive egoism that is the birthright of every conscious organism.…"

This is a very important statement. Too often I have seen Objectivism degenerate into a kind of religion with its practitioners ready to damn themselves as worthless every time they find themselves out of focus or having acted in haste. "After all John Galt was out of focus only one time wasn't he?" is a common question. Instead of a philosophy leading to greater happiness because of its opening the doors to greater awareness, often people have been led to become guilt ridden true believers.

I felt great joy in reading Mr. Branden's words because he voiced so eloquently what I had been struggling to formulate for some time. In fairness to Miss Rand it must be said that she laid the foundation for this line of reasoning with her work on "sense of life":

"A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man's relationship to existence. It sets the nature of a man's emotional responses and the essence of his character." [1]

But for some reason her work here always seems to be either forgotten or underplayed. At least I do not believe that the implications for self-acceptance were fully realized and stated before Mr. Branden's new work. Whether or not Mr. Branden in fact used Miss Rand's work on "sense of life" as the base for his own thinking is not so significant as is the need to give Miss Rand the recognition she deserves for her earlier work.

The way I see it there are three aspects of self-acceptance involved: the I, I AM, and I AM ME aspects. (It is important to note that the kind of acceptance I am speaking of is not a matter of tolerance but rather of liking.) Although these aspects can be separated conceptually, they are usually felt as one emotion. The I is the fact of one's existence. To have the basic self-acceptance necessary to build a productive happy life one must be glad about the fact of one's existence just because one exists. The I alone is what one feels during what Maslow calls oceanic experiences, when a person experiences himself directly as an existant among the other existants of reality. One has this quality with all else: one is. For this reason a person must not only respect and be glad about his own existence but existence in total. To damn parts of existence other than oneself is surely to end up affecting a person's opinion of himself. The more he damns, the more his view of himself will be affected. Schweitzer's famous phrase "reverence for life" would be better if broadened to "reverence for existence." The first precondition or base for healthy self-acceptance and self-esteem is the feeling that all existence is special and wonderful, especially, of course, one's own existence.

The I AM refers to the fact that one is a human being and means, in this context, that for self-acceptance one must be glad that he is a human. Specifically, it means to be glad that one is alive, conscious and endowed with a "human" nature. I have often heard people say such things as, "I wish I were a cat because all a cat does is sleep." To the extent that a person wishes that he were not human or damns some unchangeable aspect of human nature, i.e., one must produce to live, he creates unacceptance of himself in his own mind. He thereby lessens the chance that he will make the effort (one must value the receiver of values) to live the proper life of a human being and thereby create his own happiness. To the extent that people wish to be other than what, as human beings, they are, they damn Man and therefore themselves.

This point also covers those who damn a large majority of mankind. One cannot believe, for example, that 99% of people are evil, power hungry devils without affecting his view of himself. A person must feel a part of his own kind and that his own kind is "good" in a general basic way or he will soon come to damn himself and/or existence.

The I AM ME refers to the particular human being that one is. I am fully convinced that unless a person can accept himself as he is (by this I mean the unchangeable things that he is, i.e., sex, potentialities, physical structure, etc., rather than anything he is able to change or create) he will have no solid base from which to build and grow. A person cannot be totally unaccepting of any unchangeable aspect of himself and yet build on the only base he has: himself. How many times, for example, is a psychologist faced with the person who is not capable of constructive effort because he feels inferior by virtue of the fact that he is very short (our culture values tallness), or black (our culture values whiteness), or female (our culture values maleness)? Too, too many times.

Beyond this, I believe that there is a lot of truth in the principle that an important basis for self-esteem should be related to the amount of effort a person makes to be rationally aware. This effort is, as Miss Rand first stated, also derived from the nature of a human being; namely, that a human being must act rationally in order to further his existence and that he has to think rationally in order to act rationally. Therefore a person shows his evaluation of himself and builds on this evaluation to the extent that he acts to further his own existence or to hinder it. Simply put, a person who values himself enough to act in his own best interests likes himself for it.

Again, it is important to remember which is the base. One cannot derive real self-esteem from forcing oneself to act in accordance with a code of values even if one believes the code to be true and right. First there must be the self-acceptance that Mr. Branden speaks of. Then acting (in the broad sense of the word) in the proper manner will lead to further and enhanced self-esteem.


[1] Ayn Rand, "Philosophy and Sense of Life," THE OBJECTIVIST, February 1966, p. 1.