The Divided Self Summary (7/10) — Unearned Wisdom

Sud Alogu
7 min readDec 29, 2021


The Divided Self by R. D Laing is a landmark book in psychology that managed to point out the moral failings that underpinned the emerging field of psychiatry.


Laing begins by saying that “schizophrenic” should be used to describe people who are internally divided, or who experience a rift between their self and their world. Most psychology explains human behavior in mechanistic terms, neglecting the patient as a human agent.

For the schizoid, everything is experienced as desperately personal, yet inside it feels as if there is a vacuum. The only relationship they experience is with the self, yet it is a relationship in turmoil-hence their extreme anguish and despair.

The thing with schizoid individuals, according to Laing, is that they are very sensitive to what occurred in their minds. And they are very protective and defensive about the self that is hidden beneath the false social persona.

Schizoid people, according to Laing, are people who live with two kinds of splits. One is within their own minds. The other is between themselves and the world. They don’t feel a connectedness or a wholeness, but rather experience a feeling of isolation from the rest of humanity. The difference between the schizoid and the schizophrenic’ was that a schizoid can be troubled but remain sane, while the schizophrenic’s split mind has crossed over into psychosis.

The ‘self’ in such a schizoid organization is usually more or less unembodied. It is experienced as a mental entity. It enters the condition called by Kierkegaard ‘shutupness’.

The self is not felt to participate in the doings of the false self or selves, and all its or their actions are felt to be increasingly false and futile. The self, on the other hand, shut up with itself, regards itself as the ‘true’ self and the persona as false. The individual complains of futility, of lack of spontaneity, but he may be cultivating his lack of spontaneity and thus aggravating his sense of futility. He says he is not real and is outside reality and not properly alive.

Most people feel secure about who they are. They feel that there is a steady sense of self that has existed across time. They are comfortable in their own skin and with their relationship to the world around them. But schizoid people exist in a state of “ontological insecurity” — a deep rooted doubt about their identity and their relations to the world.

Schizoid people are afraid when they interact with others. They may dread being loved, since this requires vulnerability and exposure. Moreover, the other person by absorb their core self, thus dissolving it. The schizoid prefers not to take such a risk and often chooses isolation, or even to be hated.

They feel that their identity is constantly under threat, which stems from a feeling of emptiness, a feeling of “no self” to begin with. And therefore, they feel fearful of being depersonalized or treated as objects by others. In other words, since they lack confidence in the stability and fixedness of their “selves” — they arrive at the logical conclusion that they are vulnerably to being manipulated by others into transforming into a new “self” which is outside of their possession.

Often, during horrific circumstances, such as living in a concentration camp, a person may experience a mental schism in order to deal with the situation since there is no physical or mental escape.

In the book, Laing recounts numerous cases of individuals who suffered while trying to become someone else. They are highly sensitive to the observations and opinions of others and they are empathetic, to a fault.

Since they lack a basic existential security, they cannot simply “question their own motives” since there is no solid self to question in the first place. Life becomes a daily grind to protect themselves against outside threats. Since schizoid people lack self-certainty, they try to act like someone who could be socially accepted.

So they exist in this dual and contradictory state. On the one hand, they want to protect themselves from the interactions of others because they do not want to changed. On the other hand, they want to assume a different character that is capable of being socially accepted.

The solution is often a bleak one. Instead of living in this harsh reality, they choose to withdraw from the social world and retreat into their own world. Yet, their own world lacks cohesion and harmony as well. Their own minds are divided, and so, they exist in a constant state of conflict.

While this description is of the schizophrenic individual, it is by no means an alien experience to the human being. The difference between what a normal person experiences and what a schizophrenic person experiences merely differs in intensity and not in kind. Often, schizophrenics shuffle their behaviors and words to distract and confuse. The less coherence, the better. They would rather not be understood (and therefore subject to change) by their enemies or even themselves.


The words of the current technical vocabulary either refer to man in isolation from the other and the world, that is, as an entity not essentially ‘in relation to’ the other and in a world, or they refer to falsely substantialized aspects of this isolated entity. Such words are: mind and body, psyche and soma, psychological and physical, personality, the self, the organism. All these terms are abstracta. Instead of the original bond of I and You, we take a single man in isolation and conceptualize his various aspects into ‘the ego’, ‘the superego’, and ‘the id’. The other becomes either an internal or external object or a fusion of both.

The Divided Self, R.D Laing

What does it mean to say that we are capable of hiding something from ourselves? Or to deceive oneself in terms of the barriers between one part of the mind and the other?

How can we speak in any way adequately of the relationship between me and you in terms of the interaction of one mental apparatus with another?

There are numerous contradictions that exist in our conceptualizations of the self. But we have somehow come to terms with them. To the schizophrenic, there is a total rejection of the polarities of separateness and relatedness based on individual autonomy. Instead, there is the antithesis between complete loss of being by absorption into the other person (engulfment) and complete aloneness (isolation).

There is no third possibility where there is a dialectical relationship between two people where both are sure of their own ground and on that basis, lose themselves in each other. Such a merging can only occur in an ‘authentic’ way when individuals possess ontological security.

If a man hates himself, he may wish to lose himself in the other: then being engulfed by the other is an escape from himself. The schizophrenic experiences the feeling of liking someone as the same as being that person, hence losing identity. Therefore, hating and being hating is less threatening to a loss of identity than hating and being loved.

The Madness of Psychiatry

Laing insists that the experience of schizophrenics is far more socially intelligible than most psychiatrists think. Later in his life, Laing believed that the schizophrenic individual undergoes a transcendent adventure. They are like explorers and discoverers. To the person who is “well-adjusted”, they seem out of touch.

But who is really out of touch?

A man who prefers to be dead rather than Red is normal. A man who says he has lost his soul is mad. A man who says that men are machines may be a great scientist. A man who says he is a machine is ‘depersonalized’ in psychiatric jargon. A man who says that Negroes are an inferior race may be widely respected. A man who says his whiteness is a form of cancer is certifiable.

To Laing, it is actually the world that is insane, not the schizophrenic. Madness according to Laing depends more on politics than on objective reality.

Who’s mad, generals and politicians who are ready to destroy a nation at the push of a button, or people who are locked up in asylums?

Psychiatry is rather arrogant to call certain people “psychotic” — and thus ostracizing them from the human race. For Laing, labels given by psychiatrists say more about psychiatry and the culture behind it than they do about the people being labelled.

Early in his career, Laing wanted to reform psychiatry. He wrote The Divided Self in his late 20’s. But later in life, he no longer believed that psychiatry could be reformed. He thought it was intrinsically evil.

In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud insisted that our civilization is repressive. There is a conflict between the demands of conformity and the demands of our instinctive libidinal energies. Freud could see no easy resolution to this problem, and he came to believe that in our time the possibility of simple natural love between human beings had already been abolished. The only recourse was to find some kind of a pragmatic compromise.

But our civilization represses not only ‘the instincts’, not only sexuality, but any form of transcendence. Thus, when Laing attacks psychiatry and the fact that it imposes a taboo on the need for transcendence, he is not merely attacking the institution of psychiatry but the very culture that it is a part of.

The real culprit is the civilization that has been built on the total rejection of transcendence, variations in behaviors, difference in experiencing the world. Modern society is at root intolerant.

Among ‘one-dimensional men’, a term borrowed from Marcuse, it is not surprising that someone with an insistent experience of other dimensions, that he cannot entirely deny or forget, will run the risk either of being destroyed by the others, or of betraying what he knows.


  • 50 Psychology Classics, Butler-Bowden
  • The Divided Self, Laing

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Sud Alogu

In search of truth and deception.