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Felicity Kelcourse
A Phenomenology of Self, Psyche, and Soul: What Can We Learn from a Name?


Describing the inner life

This paper offers a “phenomenology” of self, psyche and soul (Boss, 1963/1982). Self and psyche are described from a psychological/clinical perspective, soul from a predominantly spiritual/theological point of view. Their interaction as “parts” of our existence contributes to a dynamic experience of wholeness when all parts are in dialogue.

Attempts to distinguish between aspects of human experience can be arbitrary. We routinely speak of mind and body as if they were two distinct entities yet there can be no such thing as a mind without a body (Damasio, 1994). The distinction between 'self' and 'other' can be arbitrary also (c.f. Winnicott, 1953/1971).

What is it that makes us simultaneously separate in our skins yet interconnected in other ways? The terms self, psyche and soul shed light on both our individuality and our collectivity.

The development of self- experience: Functional integrity and fragmentation

The word “self” I propose as a synonym of Freud’s “ego” (das Ich), our partially conscious sense of who we are. Self can be defined in terms of will and agency (Taylor, 1989). This definition explains the “loss of self” experienced by persons in the grips of a depression, dissociation, or a brief reactive psychosis.

For all our efforts at self-analysis, we remain in some respects mysteries to ourselves. Freud’s theories of the mind recognize this with the inclusion of potentially threatening unconscious elements in self-experience. What makes the difference between a sense of self that stays afloat through the heaviest weather and the self that sinks in the first storm? Do conscious attempts to be in dialogue with the parts of us named psyche and soul enhance or threaten the buoyancy of the self?

Psyche and self: Islands in the sea

Jung understood the psyche as both a means of perception attempting to see and understand itself and as the inescapable source of our interconnection as human beings.

Psyche is broader than self because it emphasizes the unconscious rather than conscious awareness. We enter into dialogue with this ocean breaking on the more solid shores of our self-hood through dreams, fantasies, and cross-cultural studies of religious symbols, rituals and myths. I define psyche as embodied mind: thought/affect, conscious and unconscious/body-carried awareness.

Soul as center and imago dei: That of God in us

What the soul sees is not just us or the other persons who make up our world but something more than us that connects us to an Other who is the very breath of life. I define soul as embodied spirit. It is not unusual for the soul’s voice to be ego-dystonic while simultaneously conveying a sense of conviction and authority that is not easily dismissed (James, Otto). Through the soul’s life in us, we participate in the life of God, whether or not we choose to be aware of and nurture that connection.

In conclusion

Healing difficult splits between aspects of our being is more likely to occur when we use all the means at our disposal. The self, psyche and soul that we speak of as discrete parts can work in concert to make us whole as we find the courage to consciously engage them in dialogue.

Felicity Kelcourse is Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling and Director of the Psychotherapy and Faith Program at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.  She holds a PhD in Psychiatry and Religion from Union Theological Seminary in New York.  Her research considers practical theological approaches to healing and personal transformation.

Kelcourse's recent articles appear in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, Chaplaincy Today, Encounter and The Living Pulpit.  She edited and authored several chapters in Human Development and Faith:  Life-cycles stages of change in body, mind and spirit (Chalice, 2004) and contributed chapters to Kitchen Talk (Chalice, 2003) and Out of the Silence: Quaker perspectives on pastoral care and counseling (Pendle Hill, 2001).  She is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society for Pastoral Theology, Quakers in Pastoral Care and Counseling, and Spiritual Directors International.  She has given presentations nationally and internationally on subjects including discernment, human development, the religious aspects of psychotherapy and spiritual direction through dream work.  Her clinical credentials include certifications as a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and Indiana state licensure as a Mental Health Counselor.


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