Through self psychology as a theoretical paradigm, we can begin to define sense of self. The self, only known through experience, is difficult to describe. Subjectivities, our intrapsychic ways of being, color and influence our experience in and of the world. Our individual subjective experience of being in the world leads to an invariant pattern of awareness, a form of organization that informs how we interact with ourselves and the world in which we live. Intrasubjectivity is our experiences of self, intersubjectivity our experiences of relationships, and metasubjectivity our experiences of community and culture: each of these subjectivities are different intrapsychic ways of being that influence our experience of self.
From Kohut’s perspective, experience of self operates on a continuum: at one end, self-cohesion, and on the other, self-fragmentation. Cohesion is the self-experience of feeling whole and self-confident while fragmentation is the experience of feeling unwhole, usually accompanied by a drop in self-esteem. In extreme cases, experiences of self-fragmentation lead to intense anxiety or depression. This continuum, along with the patterns of ambitions, skills, goals, and the tensions that inform our patterns and behaviors of being, form the self along with the program of action these patterns create and the activities that strive towards the realization of this program. These patterns and actions affect how individuals engage with the world around them. Similarly, all basic psychological realities, components, and needs of the individual also exist for the group, or society, but on a larger scale called the group self. The group self. The group self then also operates on the same continuum and a healthy and cohesive group self is integral to the maintenance of community and a shared sense of belonging.
Engagement with the world requires empathy, or the capacity to imagine oneself into the inner life of another person with some degree of accuracy. Empathic behavior requires understanding of one’s own subjective way of being in the world. Imagining oneself into the inner life of another without grounding oneself in one’s own sense of self and subjectivities is Rather than just sympathy or compassion, empathy “requires the capacity to be aware of one’s sense of self and other simultaneously and to allow each subjective reality to inform the other through imagination.” Engagement with others comes into the realm of selfobject experience: the experience of a person, place, thing, ideas, or activities that helps fortify and sustain self-cohesion, to confirm and enhance who we are. An empathic selfobject experience creates the potential for the engagement of self-assertion and self-expression for the individual which allows for creative activity to begin.