Intrinsic Worth

Our Wise and Wounded Self (and Why This Matters)

The older I get, the more I realize that all of us have a Wise and Wounded Self. And understanding these different selves can be helpful for a variety of reasons.

You probably haven’t thought much about your Wise and Wounded Self. After all, I made up these terms. However, you are probably more aware of your Wise and Wounded Self than you think. Let me give an example.

Have you ever had one or more of these types of situations happen to you?

One: You behave in a way that feels out of character. For example, maybe you do something you believe is wrong or against your values. And you can’t figure out why you did it. You think, “This isn’t me. I’m not like this.”

Two: Or you act unkindly to yourself and others. And after you do this, you think “Why do I act this way? I want to be a loving, kind person.”

Three: You have a bad, self-destructive habit.

“An Explosion in Jordan”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This habit could be anything from treating others badly to abusing substances, binge shopping, eating food that makes you feel horrible or that harms your health, or engaging in some other harmful behavior.

And you know this habit is destructive. Yet you feel compelled to do it, even though you feel horrible when you do so.  You keep wondering why you do the things you don’t want to do. And you feel like you don’t know who you are.

Four: Or, you have a vision of who you want to be and who you feel you are. And it’s a good vision. But no matter how hard you try, it feels like you can’t achieve that vision. And in fact, you feel like many of your actions are contrary to the vision you want so badly to achieve.

As a result, you feel like your life rarely aligns with your stated values.

Five: You sense that you have some negative behaviors or thought patterns you need to address. But it’s extremely hard for you to look at negative parts of yourself.

“Socrates Looking in a Mirror”, by Bernard Vaillant, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And so you you avoid doing so. In fact, you often blame other people when you face your own shortcomings because it’s hard for you to take responsibility for them.

Six: Someone at work or some other place criticizes you, and it feels like the absolute end of the world. You realize, “Wow. It is hard for me to take criticism. Even constructive criticism.”

If you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions, you are not alone.

Most of us, at one point or another, find ourselves in situations like this.

When we find ourselves in such situations, we encounter our Wounded Self. Our Wounded Self is the part of us that develops when we don’t know how to connect with the good, kind, and wise aspects of our humanity.

And when we don’t know how to act in a good, kind, and wise manner, we act in unwise, chaotic, painful and unprincipled ways.

Accordingly, we develop a distorted view of ourselves and others.

Picture by  Nathan Dumlao, courtesy of Unsplash.

And this distorted view causes us a lot of pain.

As a result, we may develop other unhelpful coping mechanisms like numbing, isolating, addictive behavior.

Many of us experience situations like this.

And frequently, we begin to equate ourselves with behavior we don’t like. So we begin to despise ourselves.

Most of us have had the experience of looking at the flawed and seemingly broken parts of ourselves and feeling disgust. Sometimes, it can feel like there is no way out of this view.

But a while ago, I read something from the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius that helped me better understand this experience many of us have.

To better understand Mencius’ view, it is helpful to consider a thought experiment he includes in his writings.

Mencius invites us to imagine a landscape called Ox Mountain.

Picture by Guillaume Briard, courtesy of Unsplash.

He writes,

The trees of Ox Mountain were once beautiful. But because it bordered on a large state, hatchets and axes besieged it. Could it remain verdant? Due to the rest it got during the day or night, and the moisture of rain and dew, it was not that there were not spouts or shoots growing there. But oxen and sheep then came and grazed on them. Hence, it was as if it were barren. People, seeing it barren, believed that there had never been any timber there. Could this be the nature of the mountain?[1]

Mencius’ point is that when we see a natural landscape suffering devastation, we recognize it for what it is: a devastated landscape, not the natural state of the landscape.

Mencius further reminds us that when landscapes bloom naturally, they are beautiful and healthy. That’s because they possess seeds of beauty and healthy and want to flourish.

And Mencius further reminds us that flourishing, not devastation, is their natural state.

Similarly, Mencius invites us to consider that human beings also have seeds of goodness inside them. These are seeds of goodness like love, wisdom, and dignity (i.e. a sense of right and wrong).

When these seeds receive nourishment, they naturally flourish.

Mencius writes,

Humans all have that heart of compassion. Humans all have the heart of disdain. Humans all have the heart of respect. Humans all have the heart of approval and disapproval. The heart of compassion is benevolence. The heart of disdain is righteousness. The heart of respect is propriety. The heart of approval and disapproval is wisdom. We inherently have them. It is simply that we do not reflect on them.[2]

Interestingly, Mencius’ philosophy is in line with some psychological research conducted by professor Martin Seligman at U Penn.

Seligman and his colleagues researched all major religious and philosophical traditions. This includes both ancient and contemporary religious and philosophical traditions.

They discovered that these traditions recognize twenty-four character strengths of which all humans are capable.

The major headings for these character strengths are wisdom, courage, humanity, transcendence, justice, and moderation.

Each of these major character strengths also contains other character strengths. For example, the major character strength of wisdom contains strengths like creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, and perspective.

Picture by Justin Peterson, courtesy of Unsplash.

As another example, the major character strength of humanity contains strengths like love, kindness, and social intelligence. You can read about all twenty-four character strengths, and take a test to find your primary one, here: The Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues.

And this idea is common in our religious traditions, too.

For instance, both the Jewish and Christian tradition tell us that we are made in the image of God and that everyone retains this image.

And the Christian New Testament tells us that the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance [patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.[3]

Our religious traditions suggest that whenever someone connects with and abides in the image of God in them, they can express and cultivate these fruits.

In fact, our religious traditions suggest these fruits are who we most are, given that our true nature reflects the image of God.

Now here’s the point of all this.

Mencius is right. Everyone, including you and me, possesses the seeds of all these character strengths. They are seeds in our heart, mind, and spirit. And they want to bloom.

And the more we and other people nurture them, the more we become strong, emotionally- integrated, loving, wise people, We feel assured of our dignity and strength, as well as that of other people.

And because we have this powerful view, we feel confident and joyful in our life and in our ability to live with purpose in the world and work well with other people.

I call this understanding of ourselves the Wise Self.

It is the Self that develops when we connect with and cultivate our seeds of goodness.

Photo by Jen Theodore, courtesy of Unsplash.

But sometimes while our seeds are in their baby stage, someone or something comes along and crushes the seeds.

For instance, before our seed of wisdom grows healthy and strong, people may discourage our curiosity and love of learning.

Or for example, before our seed of humanity grows healthy and strong, people may act in a disrespectful and unloving manner to us.

As such, they make it hard for us to love and trust others. So, they hinder this seed from fully growing and flourishing in our lives.

Or sometimes, it is not that people crush our seeds of goodness. Sometimes, we just don’t have a lot of help or guidance regarding how to develop our seeds.

And to make matters worse, many of the examples we see in the media are of people neglecting or actively crushing their own seeds of goodness, as well as the seeds of goodness in the people around them.

For instance, consider how often you see people in the media acting thoughtlessly, impulsively, or unkindly, rather than thinking carefully about how they can nurture goodness in themselves and others.

When our seeds get crushed or we have poor examples, our seeds often become stunted.

And as you can imagine, various parts of our personality or self-expression become stunted as well.

For instance, we may not know how to act wisely in our daily lives and, as a result, act imprudently. Or we may not fully understand how to act in a loving way to others.

As such, we form painful and chaotic relationships with people.

Or we may not have a strong sense of right and wrong, and we may not have strong principles to guide moral decision-making.

As such, we may act chaotically or impulsively. Or we may regularly make self-sabotaging decisions and then wonder why we act in such a way.

When we act in these unhelpful ways, we sometimes equate our bad behavior with ourselves. And we may view ourselves as rotten, hopeless, or thoroughly corrupt. This can make us feel like we will never change and that we are a lost cause.

Photo by Maria Teneva, courtesy of Unsplash.

But in situations where we see the badness we are all capable of, it’s important to realize that we see our Wounded, rather than our Wise, Self.

Our Wounded Self appears and grows the more we fail to connect or nurture the seeds of goodness, which is our Wise Self.

Remembering this is helpful.

When we understand that our Wise Self is our true self, we recognize that the appearance of our Wounded Self is a sign that we are struggling to connect to our Wise Self.

So rather than being a sign that we are hopeless or broken, our Wise Self reminds us that there is something deep, beautiful, and fruitful in all of us. We can always return to the seeds of goodness in ourselves and nurture and cultivate them.

They are never truly lost.

We can always choose to connect with the seeds in us. And connecting with it regularly helps us come home to ourselves.

You might like to read these related posts:

Rediscovering Your Wise Self

Tend Your Light

Contemplative Practices: A Post for Everyone

Letting Go of Perfectionism and Self-Hate

Did you know I am a philosophical consultant?

My consulting practice is Inside Out Consulting. I help both individuals and groups learn that they are Worthy, Capable, Connected, and Called to Adventure.

One of the things I help people do is connect with their Wise Self.

You can read more about this here: Work With Me.


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[1] Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd 149

[2] Ibid, pg. 148

[3] Galatians 5:22-23

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