A Sense of Self:
The Work Of Affirmation


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Sense of Self

"... Extremely well grounded in literature and theory, the book is still accessible to a wide audience. . . If every human being would adopt this philosophy. the world would have far fewer problems. Valuable reading in a first course on the self, this study will also be valuable in a therapeutic environment and to parents assisting their child in becoming his/her own person. Summing Up: Essential [reading]." CHOICE

"Cottle has written a tour de force, filled with ideas, insights, and questions. He tells an engrossing story of a notion called affirmation, of the power of its presence to light up our lives, and the power of its absence to plunge us into the darkness of despair."
Lane Conn, Harvard Medical School

A Choice Outstanding Academic Book for 2003

Listen to Tom Cottle's interview about "A Sense of Self" with Deborah Harper, President, Psychjourney
Psychjourney Podcasts | Psychology Podcasts


In this book, [Cottle’s] focus is on affirmation, that mysterious process by which the self comes to know itself in relation to others and forges an identity. What is it that we experience when we are affirmed, Cottle asks, and what are the ramifications of affirmation, or the lack of it, in how we lead our lives?

In pursuing his investigation, Cottle draws on a remarkably broad range of social scientific and philosophical literature, from Piaget and Kohut to Nietzsche and Levinas. Looking closely at the relationship between the individual, the family, and society, he explores issues of intimacy, morality, ethics, aesthetics, and socialization. He pays particular attention to the role of devotion, showing how the act of taking responsibility for another is the essence of affirmation, which in turn is the fundamental ingredient in the development of a self. Without those who take responsibility for us and commit themselves to us forever, he argues, there can be no secure sense of self and no genuine capacity for self-reflection and self-knowledge.

Cottle concludes by emphasizing how much is at stake in the work of affirmation. Just as the affirming gaze of another nurtures and strengthens one’s sense of self, the absence of affirmation—what we might call disaffirmation—can lead to a life of despair, alienation, and even violence.

Excerpts from "A Sense of Self"

...we allege that in genuine affirmation you truly are led to believe, if only by looking at me face to face and "experiencing" or recalling the form of affirmation I provide you, the richness of the life force. But just as this felt sense of living is called up in you, so too, is its twin, "lifelessness," the reality of disconnection leading ultimately to (the felt sense of) finitude. To affirm you means at once that in my gaze you are safe-I will keep an eye on you. But the safety I provide also makes it possible for you to confront the existence (in your self) of your own demise. My gaze and from it my affirmation of you, now makes it possible for you (and me) to reminisce on the subject of separation and tragedy (we both remember our thirsts or our longings). For me to be present in your eyes is also for me to be no longer physically present, for you can imagine my absence even as we touch one another, just as you can imagine my presence long after I have died. Said differently, my mere presence, you will eventually learn, cannot guarantee you immortality and, hence, even as we celebrate our connection, our intimacy, the conjoining of our selves, we mourn its (and our own anticipated) ending. [continue]

The child leading the moral life has known affirmation, not merely affirmation of the so-called "right way" of being. Through the affirmation, he or she has been taught to seek the truth, what Susan Reynolds calls "that ghost in the house of fiction," and eschew the lie, something made difficult for the dis-affirmed one whose lies to himself or herself necessarily are experienced as insult or outright assault. A lie, after all, is more than an evasion of the truth; it remains an evasion of the self in both the external and internal worlds, and ultimately an affront to or repudiation of affirmation; it lives as confirmation of dis-affirmation. The lie, Stephen Tigner has remarked, causes promises to be broken; it undermines any sense of fidelity of the self to itself or to another. That I lie to preserve the perceived (by me) reputation of my (false) self, or establish some image of it for others is undeniable. Constantly relying on the lie, however, leaves me utterly alone; everything I encounter disconfirms my fundamental vision of the world, my fundamental sense of self being in the world. Thus, I insult my self as well as the other drawing little from my self but dishonest conceptions as well as disingenuous perceptions and presentations of my self and the other. Somewhere in the past, the liar has been assaulted. Somewhere in the future, he may well assault himself, and others. [continue]

Table of Contents


1. The Act of Affirmation
2. The Relational Aspect of Affirmation

3. The Gaze of Affirmation
4. The Niraculous Stranger
5. The Construction of Affirmation

6. Average Expectable Environments
7. The Affirmation Curriculum



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