While certainly we cannot say that there is a center of selfhood somewhere in the brain, or that what we call our self is necessarily a perfectly coherent unit, we nevertheless all agree that there is such a thing as the self. I am a person with certain properties, and I can sometimes “not feel like myself,” for instance when using medical drugs.
I can also say that I may do things that are not “like me” in order to fulfill a social role. By doing so, I take on a mask by which other people may see me and, hopefully, respect me more. Most people’s lives consist of going from one mask to another, always hiding their “self,” which for the sake of preventing confusion we may call the “true self.” The only time when they can be “truly themselves,” if at all, is when sharing intimacy, which is why intimacy for most people is so risky and yet so desired.
For the sake of simplifying this discussion, let me create and define a few terms. The true self is the nature of the individual without social pressures and collectivist indoctrination, the core of every psyche. The basic beliefs are those personal (centered on the self) beliefs that originally made the individual believe in whatever identity or belief system you are analyzing. The distal beliefs are those beliefs that are used to rationalize the identity or belief, post hoc, and the proximate beliefs are those beliefs upheld by the individual on a daily basis (the difference between a proximate and distal belief is that the believer will readily give you proximate beliefs, but will generally only show his distal beliefs when he is further probed or refuted). And finally, an identity or false self is an “I am…” adopted by the individual which railroads him into a number of “I should…”s and “I must…”s which do not come from his true self. With each identity comes beliefs about others which distance themselves from their loving true self.
With these elements, based both on theory and my own extensive observations, we have a primitive but workable (and testable) model of the individual psyche. Perhaps a simple example will help explain this. You talk to a person who is in the identity of “I am a statist” (which would actually probably defined in his mind as “I am not an Anarchist”). His proximate beliefs may include “Democracy is the best form of social organization” and “The law exists to protect our rights.” Proximate beliefs always present a rosy and seemingly coherent picture. But once you probe and refute these beliefs, he may fall back to distal beliefs such as “might makes right” (although not so crudely expressed) and “if everyone believes something, it must be true.” This is generally as far as you will go, if you keep taking that route. If you can get him to take down his guard and talk to you as an equal, and to start talking in “I” language, he may tell you about his basic beliefs, such as “I was raised feeling like I always needed to obey authority figures” or “I don’t think most people can be trusted.”
The identities and the true self are what concern us the most, because they are what the individual projects into the world around him (if not the true self, then some identity), they are the living products. They concern us specifically because the true self is where love and compassion reside. As identities are constructed and maintained, they keep us separated from that source of love, and make us see others as abstract entities, as enemies or as tools for an end, and treat them coercively. This alienation sustains a number of “I should…”s and “I must…”s for each identity, both in terms of positions and actions, which present a model for the person to follow in that identity. In the case of “I am a statist,” we could say that it entails things like “I must believe in democracy,” “I must follow the party line,” “I must consider people who support other parties as being my enemies,” “I should vote,” “I should be patriotic,” “I should support our leaders,” “I should support the military,” and so on. The laundry list would be pretty long and would depend on the exact form of statist belief of the individual.
That being said, there are innumerable identities that any person can take: “I am white,” “I am black,” “I am a worker,” “I am a boss,” “I am a politician,” “I am a prospective boyfriend/girlfriend,” “I am a housewife,” “I am a woman,” “I am a man,” “I am a straight man,” “I am a homosexual,” “I am a soldier,” “I am a victim,” “I am a poor,” “I am a bourgeois,” “I am a communist,” “I am a Christian,” each with their accompanying “I should…”s and “I must…”s. Once you drop all these identities, all the “I should…”s and “I must…”s, all that is left is “I,” the self, not being anything or being enforced anything, just the self in and of itself (no pun intended).
The goal in taking down identities is to find the true self of the other person and free it. This is not much different from deconverting someone from a belief system. In fact, any identity implies some belief system, and any belief system implies some identity. So the process is very similar, because nonbelief is part of the natural state of man, and so is love, compassion and empathy.
Belief systems are almost completely based on projection, and the same is true of identities. To be able to love, you must first love yourself, your true self. If you are stuck in identities and loathe yourself or have no self-esteem, then this will inevitably lead to projections such as “others are not to be trusted,” “others are such hypocrites” or “others lead such empty lives” (or whatever the individual feels about himself). Not only will people project, but they will also suffer from confirmation bias (i.e. remember what confirms their accusations, and forget about what doesn’t). On the other hand, people who love themselves will be able to love others, and will tend to project loving intentions on others, thus making loving intentions more likely.