What Is Self-Loss?
Here’s a visualization I often do with my clients to give them a sense of what self-loss feels like:
Imagine you’re alone, sitting in a worn, leather armchair in the middle of a room. In front of you is a chipped coffee table straining to support the weight of the numerous dusty books that you intended to read but never found time for. You have a cup of coffee that has grown cold, the milk curdled on the surface. On the side table next to you is a vintage green lamp, merely ornamental ever since the room has been set ablaze.
The flames are creeping up the walls, peeling the wallpaper and sending parachutes of ash in midair. The flares slowly inch toward you; little sparks burning holes in the rug at your feet. You can barely see through the smog; your lungs fill with smoke, your eyes water. Yet you continue to sit there—paying bills, checking your email, making work deadlines, sending long, upset text messages, or posting inspirational quotes on Instagram—ignoring your impending death. You hear faint instinctual inner screams. A voice deep inside is urging you to MOVE.
But instead, you convince yourself that “this is fine”; that you are fine, in control, even. That the way you have chosen to live will not hurt you. Your life is threatened, but for some reason or another you don’t see it; you ignore it, or perhaps you’re waiting for someone else to save you. You are too “busy” to save yourself. Or, maybe you notice the flames, but you are preoccupied with debating who set the fire in the first place—you’d rather figure out who to blame than find a way to live. Regardless of the specifics, you don’t choose to extinguish the fire, which ultimately means you are choosing to get burned.
I ask my clients to sit with, explore, and make meaning of this metaphor. When they have constructed their own interpretation, I share my intent:
We are alone in the room because that’s a given—no one will ever truly know what it’s like to be us. The old, worn armchair represents the comfort we feel from the habits and patterns we’ve developed. It’s placed in the center of the room because we are often—for better or for worse—the focal point of our own lives. Our strained relationships (the table) are burdened by our lack of self-growth and healing (the unopened books). The cold coffee represents time passing, and complacency settling in. The lamp represents our dimming awareness, its light overpowered by the flames (our denial) creeping up the walls.
The wallpaper represents our boundaries. Over time, it begins to peel off and compromise the integrity of the room, of who we are. The rug, our foundation—beliefs, morals, values—is set ablaze and we struggle to find our footing. The blurred vision is the detrimental stories we tell ourselves, and the smog filling our lungs is all the things we consume that we believe will make us “whole,” but don’t. We successfully ignore signs of danger and the call to responsibility. We surrender our freedom and risk our lives to enjoy the warmth of the familiar—our so-called obligations and day-to-day mundanities. We may not know why we find ourselves in a burning room or who is to blame, but ultimately the only thing that matters is what we do about it.
It can be hard to wrap our heads around the idea of facing such a clear threat and continuing to live as if it’s of no consequence. It’s difficult to imagine that someone on the verge of losing something as significant as their Self can ignore the warning signs. This loss—this impending danger that I am talking about—is not physical, it is existential.
And it’s the danger that most of us face as a consequence of the way we choose to live our everyday lives.
Let’s spend a day in the life of a girl named Alex. When her alarm goes off in the morning, the first thing she does is grab her phone. It will only take a couple of seconds before her finger taps on the first app. As her eyes adjust to the brightness, she will squint away the blur of her screen and check her DMs, silently calculating when to respond or like a picture without looking too eager. She will mindlessly scroll for a couple of minutes, or ten, or twenty-five, consciously or subconsciously taking note of other people’s lives, body shapes, or success, adding new insecurities, comparisons, or expectations to the back of her mind. Eventually she will hurry around her apartment to get ready (for the gaze of others), and if there is enough time to do one thing for herself that morning—it’s going to be coffee. Always. Alex will chug it as she hops on her first online meeting or rushes out the door to catch the train, completely forgetting to eat breakfast, drink water . . . or take a deep breath.
At work, she puts on a faint smile while dealing with people who are unpleasant, unkind, or just bad at their jobs. She lives by her online calendar, which tells her who to talk to and when, and which tasks she needs to tackle. She often checks her emails during long calls, paying very little attention to either. If she is feeling annoyed, she’ll send a snarky text to a colleague on the same video call—waiting to see if they crack a smile. At lunch, she will get a caffeine refill and eat some food, while barely taking a moment to notice its taste. She will take a picture of her outfit or the view from her desk—commenting on the weather, her workload, or making a self-deprecating joke. Every two or three minutes, Alex will check to see who’s viewed her story and look at it herself—her pictures tend to paint her life better than she knows how to live it, and looking at them helps her feel like she’s living much more than she actually is.
After work, she might hop on her Peloton, not because she cares about her health but because she hates her body. Afterward, she will meet up with her friends or watch Netflix on the couch in an effort to distract herself from feeling drained, upset, bored, or unfulfilled, while spending the majority of the time glancing at her phone, wondering if that person she’s seeing is going to text her back. Eventually she crawls into bed and looks at her screen until her eyelids get heavy.
Alex has become accustomed to (some might even say comfortable with) living in the burning room.
And with every passing day, she sinks deeper into self-loss.
Does any of this feel familiar?
The term “self-loss” almost sounds like we can misplace our essence like a set of car keys or our phone charger. And although arguably a tempting explanation, it would be inaccurate to compare self-loss to losing something or someone else. Simply put: Self-loss is being estranged from and lacking congruence, resonance, and alliance with who we truly are. It’s the feeling of being inconsistent and inauthentic—of having our actions, feelings, and decisions cease to represent how we understand and experience ourselves as “truly” being.
The regrettable reality is that too many of us go on with life unfazed by the fact that we do not know who we are. As an existential therapist, I have come to understand that the human sense of Self is the staple of well-being, relationships, and fulfillment. Self-loss, on the other hand, is often why we fail to communicate and set boundaries, why we hold on to beliefs that no longer serve us, why we struggle in relationships, why we are overwhelmed or scared to make decisions, why self-love is so goddamn difficult, and finally, why so many of us fail to find meaning and purpose in our lives.
If you are reading this, chances are you spend much of your time feeling like the walking dead, not fully conscious, vibrant, or free. This state of existence is so common that, at this point, I would be as bold as to say that self-loss has become part of the human condition. It is not pathological, it is not a diagnosis (although it can be comorbid with other mental health struggles). It is something many of us face and it is the obstacle that stands in the way of authenticity, fulfillment, and meaningful connection with others.
The crux of self-loss is that it doesn’t allow us to exist—not truly. Not in a way we find fulfilling or, perhaps, even worth all the effort.
Copyright © 2023 by Sara Kuburic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.