The Embodied Self Definition Essay

Introductory Note:

This piece compares two teachings in the integral spiritual world: The Authentic Self (from Andrew Cohen) and The Unique Self (from Marc Gafni). As I was in the midst of writing and editing this piece and preparing it for publication, news broke of another controversy surrounding Gafni. I’ve already posted my views on that subject on Beams. See also the excellent comments thread to that piece. So I’m not going to rehash that conversation here. Anyone interested in conversation on that point is encouraged to add their voice to that post where it rightly belongs.  

As I said in the previous piece that I just linked to, whatever one’s views on Marc as a person and his actions, I believe the teaching of The Unique Self is extremely important. I think it’s bigger than any single person. This site is dedicated to holding multiple perspectives and in this piece I’m endeavoring to do precisely that thing. While I said earlier that I think the teaching of The Unique Self is extremely important, this piece fleshes out how I understand that statement.

Something similar (though by no means identical) can be said for the teaching of The Authentic Self. Simply mentioning Andrew Cohen raises protest from certain quarters—some of which we have experienced here at the site. But again I think the teaching can be examined without having to focus exclusively on the teacher and one's views of him/her. Br. Bergen is a student of Andrew’s and has interview with him on the site. Juma has mentioned both his support and critiques of evolutionary spirituality in this piece. Here I add my voice to that conversation. There is no monopoly of thought on this point among the Beams crew.

The basic stance I take in this context is at the core of the embodiment of integral theory: unless someone takes up the practice and checks the data of spiritual experience and enters the interpretive framework of a teaching, they are in no place to really be able to speak in any legitimate way to the teachings.  

I’ve left the original piece largely untouched from its original state--it is published here as Part I. Part II, an experiential guide into some of the terrain is a later addition. Please Note: This is an in-depth heavy-duty exploration of a rather subtle topic. With all that said, onto the piece itself.


Pt I: The Argument

One of the most important contributions of an Integral or post-postmodern spirituality is the understanding of how an individual expresses and manifests an awakened life in the world. As but one example, a pressing need of our age is to relate Eastern and Western forms of spirituality in a global age.  With the introduction of Western economics into the Eastern world—i.e. globalization—and the entrance of Eastern forms of spirituality into the West, the question of an integration of these two streams is supremely important as both cultures increasingly influence one another.

To speak very simplistically, the Eastern traditions argue for identification with the Absolute—called Consciousness, Emptiness, The One, The Ground, The Divine, etc.  In contrast, the Western tradition has emphasized the autonomy of the individual and the importance of the development of the material world: history, society, psychology, technology, etc. Moreover the Western spiritual tradition has also tended to emphasize a strong sense of vocation and calling, that is divinely inspired work in the world.

In the last few years, a number of teachings that seek to respond to this situation have come forward.  In this piece I’m going to focus on two of them, perhaps the two best known: The Authentic Self and The Unique Self.  

The Authentic Self teaching comes from Andrew Cohen; The Unique Self from Marc Gafni, with help from Ken Wilber, Diane Hamilton, and Sally Kempton.  While there are precedents for these teachings, they have been shaped and embodied in a contemporary fashion by these teachers.

As both teachings describe a kind of Self, either Authentic or Unique, I would like to focus on the question of personality (or lack thereof) in the spiritual path. This issue lies at the heart of the debate between the two about their respective teachings.

In this context, we might consider questions like: Does Enlightenment erase personality? Does it enhance personality? Is Enlightenment totally unrelated to personality? These are extremely important questions as our responses to these questions strongly shape the spiritual path we take and how that path shows up in the world.

The teachings on The Authentic Self and The Unique Self take very different stances in relation to the question of Spiritual Awakening and personality. The Authentic Self teaching, as we will see holds that the ultimate truth is impersonal in nature while The Unique Self teaching is best thought of as transpersonal, that is it transcends the personality yet includes the personality as well.

First I’ll give a brief overview of each teaching, starting with The Authentic Self, and then I’ll offer some thoughts about a possible reconciliation or integration of these two teachings.

The Authentic Self

Andrew Cohen describes The Authentic Self as impersonal.  Andrew describes The Authentic Self as the urge to consciously evolve:

“When time began, for an unknown reason, something came from nothing. Suddenly, an impulse emerged—the impulse to become, to create, to evolve. One could call it the God impulse. This urge to take form gradually became the whole universe, eventually including you and me as we are right now…And at the highest level, the level of consciousness, we experience it as the spiritual impulse, the mysterious urge to evolve as consciousness itself. This urge to evolve is what I call the authentic self. The movement of the authentic self in each and every one of us is not other than the one evolutionary impulse that is driving the engine of creation. When you feel the irresistible compulsion to develop at the level of consciousness, you are experiencing in your own soul the same impulse that initiated the big bang.”

The Authentic Self is a function of Consciousness. Further, this conscious drive to evolve in the Authentic Self reveals itself especially in regards to moral evolution.  In this video Andrew makes a strong, passionate case for moral evolution.

Being a function of Consciousness, The Authentic Self is inherently non-egoic. This non-egoic nature of The Authentic Self creates the possibility for deep communion in a non-egoic/Awakened context. Cohen’s teaching strongly emphasizes and embodies this intersubjective form of nonduality. When Authentic Selves find one another they seek to give expression to this fundamental creative drive of life in the realm of consciousness.

So conscious evolution is the hallmark of The Authentic Self and is described in the fourth tenet of Andrew’s teaching as a process perspective (formerly termed truth of impersonality). The emphasis is on the overall evolutionary process rather than any individual being within that process. This perspective is therefore rightly termed impersonal in nature.

The teaching of The Unique Self, in contrast, will argue that this new identity can be thought of, if not in personal terms, then under the term of Uniqueness.

The Unique Self

The definition of The Unique Self is True Self plus Perspective.

True Self or Awakening means realization of The Ultimate Ground and Essence of all Life. In traditions like Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam this Ultimate is usually called The One. In a tradition like Buddhism it is called Emptiness.

The Unique Self formula states that a person must first realize The Absolute Oneness. On the far side of this realization of Oneness comes perspective. It is the combination of those two, according to Marc Gafni, that reveals The Unique Self.

The key to understanding this definition is to get a sense of how perspective is being used here. This passage helps explain the meaning:

Imagine four people sitting in a room, each looking at each other. All four of these people are "fully" enlightened; that is, as enlightened as a person can be at this point in history. Gazing upon one another, they see the very same Oneness staring back at them, recognizing the effortless awareness behind each set of eyes…Now let's imagine that these four enlightened masters are sitting in a circle, each looking at a globe that sits on a table between them. Although they all share the same direct apprehension of Oneness, they each retain a particular perspective of the globe, and therefore each see the world in a completely different way. There is something markedly unique about each of their experiences, from their physical orientation in time/space to their individual experience of the universal. Within each of them lies a fundamental thread of perspective, stretching all the way to the darkest depths of the Mystery—a bottomless drop of the Heart that is unique to each and every one of us. 

It is this combination of Oneness and individuality that gives birth to The Unique Self. The Unique Self teaching then is transpersonal not impersonal. The way Ken Wilber frames it is to say, The Unique Self is “personal plus, not personal minus.” Transpersonal means transcending and yet including the personal domain of life.

Having established that The Unique Self is an individual’s embodied perspective on awakening, Gafni is able to draw out a number of implications. For example, Gafni is working on developing a teaching of Unique Shadow. There are also Unique Gifts, as well as Unique Vows. All of these are simply different facets of the Unique Self.

For Gafni, the recognition and validation of an individual's true Uniquess is what allows for there to be Unique relationship. Gafni has even gone so far as to talk of the Unique Revelation of the various traditions, along with their core essentials in terms of Awakening. This is a profoundly important point that would sidetrack us from the main thread of this piece, but I highly recommend this article.

Gafni spends a great deal of time arguing (in my view correctly) that Uniqueness should not be confused with separation or the separate self sense of the ego. The Unique Self is neither the contraction of the separate self-sense nor is it the Undifferentiated Oneness of the Absolute Self. It is a third reality: a trans-personalone.

Comparing The Two Teachings:

While there are clearly points of difference in the teachings of The Unique and Authentic Selves, I believe it is absolutely crucial to keep in mind the many points held in common between them.

Common points include:

1. There is development beyond Awakening to the Ultimate Self
2. That development includes a desire to evolve/cultivate a new sense of Self--Cohen: Authentic Self, Gafni: Unique Self.
3. Relationships are to be developed in light of this new context--Cohen: Higher We, Gafni: Evolutionary We.
4. There's a strong drive to bring new forms and expressions of Care and Goodness in the world--Cohen: Moral Evolution, Gafni: Nondual Humanism.
5. Creativity lies at the heart of this new reality. Cohen: Creative Impulse, Gafni: Eros.
6. The basic spiritual flow is to first realize The Absolute and then to experience the post-Awakening Identity.

Note that these points constitute a substantial amount of agreement.  This puts Andrew and Marc’s respective teachings much closer to each other than to many other forms of spiritual teaching available today which tend to deny creative evolution and don’t advocate for a new identity after traditional awakening.

That being said, the clear distinction that runs throughout however is whether this new identity, culture, creativity, and ethics are Impersonal or Transpersonal in nature.

Integrating The Two Teachings

I’m going to offer a way of viewing the relationship between the two teachings.  In doing so I’m going to invoke one of the hallmark principles of integral theory as articulated by Ken Wilber: the first useful principle of nonexclusion. As Ken says, “Everyone is right.” Another way of saying that is: everyone is true and partial.

Seeking to be inclusive, if we assume the teaching of both The Unique Self and The Authentic Self are correct, i.e. that both enlightened transpersonality and impersonality are somehow correct, then the question is: how can we fit them together? What is the third space that includes both?  

The upshot of practicing nonexclusion, according to Wilber, is “freedom through limitation.” Teachings and practices are freed to do what they do best by being limited and not having to solve all problems. That is, by being freed various teachings do not have to do what they aren’t in fact designed to do.

But how could impersonality and transpersonality both be correct?  If readers think I’m playing a shell game at this point, I invite them to take an “as if” position. What would happen if we approached this topic as if both propositions were true (and partial)?  

I’ve discussed this point in more detail elsewhere on the site, but consider the Integral Learning Cycle, from Mark Edwards.  A cycle of learning occurs by first undertaking some kind of practice, which gives rise to a world of experiences, which are then framed through an interpretive lens, which then creates a community of the learned who confirm or disconfirm understanding within that world. In the Quadrants, that’s the movement from Upper Right (practice) to Upper Left (experience) to Lower Left (interpretation) to Lower Right (dis/confirmation).

The impersonality and transpersonality debate mostly occurs in the interpretive framing domain (Lower Left). That is, the debate is about how best to understand or interpret and name this post-Awakening spiritual identity.

But both of those interpretive teachings are arising out of various experiences from various and distinct practices. And therein lies the key point.

What if we imagine that both Andrew and Marc are correctly interpreting the respective experiences of their teaching?  That would suggest—as I think is actually the case—they are describing related but distinct experiences.  They would in other words be talking about related but distinct spiritual identities.  

It seems to me that the dialogue to date concerning the two teachings has assumed that they are arguing about basically the same spiritual territory and the only question is one of interpretation:  Is this thing we’re both experiencing impersonal or transpersonal in nature?

What if that underlying assumption is flawed?  What if Gafni and Cohen aren’t in fact arguing over the exact same territory? What if their respective spiritual practices are each picking up on a distinct dimension or stream? What if they are in fact correctly interpreting the differing experiences they are having—since they are arising from different practices?

If that perspective is right, then what they really should be doing is taking up each other’s practices and seeing what the experiences are like and if the interpretive frameworks being offered by their teachings make the best sense of those experiences, rather than simply debating who’s right and who’s wrong without having taken up each other’s practices.

This hypothesis of mine is based on the possibility that Cohen has picked up on an impersonal dimension of post-Awakening identity and Gafni has picked up on a transpersonal dimension of this identity.

If we look at Cohen’s teaching model of The Authentic Self, there is strong emphasis on conscience, moral evolution, Deep Time orientation, and evolving culture.  I would argue those are actually impersonal dimensions.  The moral evolutionary side creates an absolute impersonal standard that drives us.

If we look at Gafni’s teaching there is emphasis on Sacred Autobiography, The Gifting and Talents of a Unique Self, meditation on sacred texts, and Shadow practice.  These I argue are in the transpersonal domain. 

In a post-metaphysical framework, what we meditate on, how we practice, and how we understand what we experience all determine what actually comes to be.  These forms of awakening are being co-developed in and through the communities of practice and interpretation. They are each forging their own streams.

This point is an extremely important one, as each stream has its potential upsides as well as downsides.  
Gafni’s Unique Self teaching without the insistence on moral evolution could easily cement egotism as people confuse the Uniqueness of The Unique Self for the uniqueness of the ego.

The teaching of the impersonal Authentic Self without the sense from The Unique Self of owning one’s distinct perspective and angle on the whole process could end up confusing a-personality for im-personality. Since both apersonality and transcendental impersonality are non-personal in nature it is quite possible to confuse them. In my experience, there’s a fine line between the two.

The Flavor of Enlightenment

The view I’m advocating holds that there is therefore a third space that embraces these two teachings.  Br. Juma long ago coined the term ‘flavor of enlightenment.’ I think that fits here. Another option might be Real Self.  

This formulation includes both impersonal and transpersonal elements.  My contention is that Uniqueness and Authenticity are both manners of expression or modes of embodiment. Uniqueness and Authenticity point more towards the way in which someone shows up. Flavor I believe is more connected to the state of something or someone’s identity. It speaks more to the reality. Therefore, I think Flavor is wide enough to hold both Uniqueness and Authenticity as modes of its own expression. The Flavor, in other words, shows up both as Authentic and Unique.

Now someone might argue that I’ve just turned this into a giant semantic debate—I mean who really cares whether we call it Authentic, Unique, Flavor whatever? In a certain sense that’s right, it doesn’t ultimately matter what term is decided upon. But what does matter is the context in which that term is held. As I’ve been trying to make clear throughout this piece, what interpretive context we bring to spiritual experience is as important, if not more important, as interpretation has huge implications for how we practice and what virtues we cultivate along the spiritual way as a result.

Let me use a concrete example that relates specifically to The Unique Self and Authentic Self teachings. Marc Gafni wrote a book some years ago entitled Soul Prints. This book was the beginning of his explorations that are now more fully fleshed out as The Unique Self. The metaphor evokes the idea of fingerprints. The Soul is said to have its own set of fingerprints, which would uniquely identify them, as no one has two sets of matching fingerprints.

Soul Prints talks about getting in touch with one’s own Sacred Autobiography. By Sacred Autobiography Marc means an autobiography or narrative of The Unique Self. A Soul Print is not an autobiography of the ego. By calling it Sacred Autobiography, Marc is pointing out that the vast majority of autobiographies are about egoic personalities not Unique Selves. A Soul Print biography must be radically different than a regular biography as its narrative focus and subject are entirely different in nature.

Now the teaching of Sacred Autobiography only makes sense if one thinks that this post-Awakening Identity is transpersonal in nature: transcending and including personality. The Unique Self is Awakening plus Perspective. A Sacred Autobiography would highlight the awakened perspective of the person about whom the autobiography is written. Their awakened life, gifts, service, insights, and relationships would come together to form a sacred narrative of a life.

There is no equivalent practice of Sacred Autobiography in Andrew Cohen’s teaching for the simple reason that it makes no sense in that context. If one holds that the post-Awakening Self is impersonal in nature, there is no reason to write a Unique Sacred Autobiography. To do so would be a contradiction in terms.

Conversely, there is something deeply profound about sitting in a contemplation of the entire Kosmic journey and being the developmental Kosmic process aware of itself. There is a way that this contemplation obliterates egoic attachment—if only for a period of time. There is a deep freedom and creativity unleashed from entering into a space (especially with others) contemplating the entire process and seeing ourselves from that perspective. Only in such a space, it seems to me, is it really possible to experience how deeply the egoic rejection of serving the entire process really goes.

The Vase and Face: An Analogy

Another piece of evidence that supports my contention that the teachings of The Unique and Authentic Selves can be brought together is that Ken Wilber has been instrumental in the articulation of both teachings. He is not himself the teacher or primary driver of either teaching, but he has offered profound aid to both Marc and Andrew in the formulation of their respective teachings.

As I said the decision we make as to whether the way is transpersonal or impersonal has major implications for the way in which we practice. That is my deeper point, much more important than specific arguments about what things should be named. The names work as signifiers that point to significant areas of interpretation and embodiment.

If that’s the case, what if these two teachings are more like this famous Gestalt painting? The image is two images interwoven, but a person can only see one at a time. Either we see the vase or the two faces. We never see both at the same time.

I hold it’s the same with the question of impersonality or transpersonality in the debate surrounding The Authentic and Unique Selves. The Authentic Self is something like the vase in the painting—alone, a vessel or container for another truth. The Unique Self is more like the two faces.

Held in this perspective, the tension around The Unique and Authentic Selves is now a creative tension. Their solution is not found in choosing one side or the other, but rather in holding them together in paradox.

How this paradoxical view shakes out in spiritual practice is that it frees up a community to practice both teachings. Each teaching will need to be done on its own—just as we can only ever see either the faces of the vase at one time. But having embodied something of both teachings, one can then start to feel when it is appropriate to be more one and when the other—when to put our attention more to the Vase-like dimensions of the spiritual path (Authenticity) and when to the Faces (Uniqueness).

The whole painting, in this analogy, is The Flavor that includes both.

If valid, this perspective I’m offering would be able to incorporate the strengths of both The Unique and Authentic Selves, while balancing out their potential blind spots. In the space of The Flavor, The Unique and Authentic Selves become polarities. We seek to embrace both polarities and flow between them rather than choose one over the other. In so doing I believe we could create a healthier, deeper, and wider spiritual expression.


Part II: Practicing What We Preach 

We've spent a great deal of time assessing various teachings, but without an experiential grounding of them both these ideas will remain rather abstract. What follows are some pointing out instructions/guided meditations in order to get a taste of The Unique and The Authentic Selves. Returning to the article in light of those experiences will allow for deeper engagement and for the reader to get a sense of whether s/he agrees with my perspective (this again is the Learning Cycle). 

As mentioned both teachings start with The Absolute (aka The Ground of Being) as the foundation of their teachings. 

So Practice #1 is to enter into The Source. 

Begin by letting your attention relax. Notice that given the opportunity it wants to relax of itself. Notice the deep Peace underlying every moment. It's a kind of space between everything. You may find it helpful to repeat (internally or softly aloud) Stillness. 

There is a Current in which nothing is happening. The experience is one of a calm lake, utterly still and perfectly at ease. There are no dilemmas, no troubles, no past pains or future concerns. Just This. Just Now. The Eternal Present. 

As that Current begins to wash over you, begin to let this experience Feel from your Heart. It radiates. There is an Unconditional sense of Love in addition to the Peace and Stillness. A Warm Peacefulness. That Warm Peacefulness is who you are, what everything is. It's the Source and Condition of our being.


That's step #1, held in common by both teachings. Now we move into the distinction of the two teachings, starting with The Unique Self.

The Unique Self 

Start again with practice #1: Resting in the Loving Ground of Being: a empty space of deep, quiet, Heart Ecstasy. 

From within that state, then deeply inquire into: "What is my Purpose?" "How shall I serve this Loving Ground?" "What is my offering?"

An image may flash into your consciousness, a vision of your Self in awakened embodied expression or you might experience some intuitive sense of who you are coming out of this Loving Ground into form. 

A variation on this is to ask to speak to The Unique Self that has you [e.g. I would say The Unique Self that has Chris.] Slightly shift your bodily posture to signify that you given such permission and are now standing in the position/perspective of The Unique Self that has you. Experience the world of The Unique Self that you are. If you have a dialogue partner, have the partner ask you questions such as (or you can ask the questions to yourself):

"What is it like to be you? What does it feel like? What do you experience?"


"What are you here to do?" "What is your purpose?"

If working with a partner, each person takes a turn asking questions and responding as The Unique Self. It is very important to speak to The Unique Self that has you rather than "my Unique Self". Framing it as "my Unique Self" can cause a person to understand the the uniqueness to be internal to the ego ("my unique self") rather than The Unique Self which transcends and includes ("has") your frontal personality.

You will know immediately you have located The Unique Self for things will start to light up. You'll have a sense of "sitting in your seat."

The Authentic Self 

Once again return to practice #1 of resting in the Ground. And from there follow this guided meditation from Andrew Cohen:

"If you pay close attention to your own experience you will begin to realize that there is more to nothingness than meets the eye. The nothingness is not nothing. Nothing is happening there, and yet it is deeply compelling. If you get into a deep state of meditation it's absolutely enthralling. There is somethingin the nothingness that, once discovered, is absolutely absorbing.

In that unmanifest domain nothing has happened, nothing has happened yet...but everything is possible. Everything came from that no-place! So even in the absolute nothingness prior to the big bang the potential for everything must have existed. That is what captivates your attention as you rest in that empty stillness--the sense of infinite potential. It is experienced as a suspended state of absolute awakeness, a quiet tension that exists in consciousness because everything is possible.

Everything is possible, but nothing has yet occurred--that is the vibration in the ground of Being, dancing just below the surface. That's what you begin to feel when you put your attention on the moment when the universe was born...This is the revelation that liberates: that in your very own experience you can find the same vibration, the same energy, the creative tension that initiated the entire process at the very beginning."

--Evolutionary Enlightenment, pp. 26-27  (italics in original).


The Flavor of Embodied Enlightenment

So we begin to see that these two identities are related but distinct. They are awakened by different practices--that's the key part.

Cohen led us to contemplate the entire Universe, connect with the creative energy behind it, and then find that energy surge through us, as us. In that state one experiences the overall Process as the important thing. Cohen is right--from this state--it is Impersonal. That is the Authentic Self. 

The Unique Self practice does also lead to an experience of the Creative Urge pulsing within and through each of us. But the practice leads to a more acute awareness of one's specific role and expression as that process. 

Now, one final practice, a practice to include and transcend the two. 

We're going to use the Voice Dialogue Process once more for this one. 

Imagine the voice of The Authentic Self as one side of a triangle and The Unique Self as the other side. Now imagine the top of the triangle. We will call that voice The Apex. 

Give yourself permission to speak to the voice of The Apex (that which includes both The Unique and The Authentic Self). Shift bodily to signify this identity-shift. 

You are The Apex.

What it is like to be you? What is your experience?

If you follow this voice, you will notice that you can feel both The Authentic Self and The Unique Self within you. You have choice to flow between the two--in Part I I called this shifting perspectivese from the Vase to the Faces in the famous gestalt painting.

My contention is that The Apex of The Unique and Authentic Selves is The Flavor of Enlightenment that expresses itself through your being. In this way we are able to include the best of both The Unique and Authentic Selves.

The Unique Self is the distinct angle on enlightenment of an individual. The Authentic Self is the impersonal, unyielding energetic function of Consciousness that is intimately grasps the whole Process of Creation. 

The Flavor of Enlightenment is, I believe, much more a state of our Essence. The Flavor has two fundamental perspectives: one that is exclusive one (The Unique Self) and one that is that of the entire Process (The Authentic Self).

If the interpretation I've offered is valid, it leaves open a rich vein of inquiry into the nature of The Flavor of Enlightenment of any being, by incorporating both of those perspectives: Uniqueness and Authenticity. 


Recent social work reforms in the UK have highlighted the need for social work practitioners to be empathetic, reflexive and resilient. Current literature defines resilience as the individual's adaptive response to adversity, stress-resistant personality traits and the ability to ‘bounce back’, yet the processes by which resilience is developed remain underexplored. The stressors associated with training to be a social worker particularly necessitate such an investigation. This study adopts a phenomenological approach to explore social work students' lived experiences of managing emotion and developing resilience. Emotion is constructed as a relational concept, developed within intersubjective space and as an embodied experience. Findings indicate tensions in student narratives around the expression of emotion and ‘being professional’. Critical incident narratives reveal often overwhelming difficulties experienced by students, prior to and during the social work programme. A variety of coping strategies were adopted including active resistance, spirituality, critical reflection and social support. Narratives as ‘discourses-in-the-making’ highlight embodiment as a valuable analytical lens by which emotional conflicts are experienced, deconstructed and resolved through the process of integrating the personal and professional self. Spaces to develop emotional resilience within the social work curriculum are discussed.

Resilience, self-identity, embodiment, social work education


Resilience is a multifaceted concept, defined as ‘a dynamic process wherein individuals display positive adaptation despite experiences of significant adversity or trauma’ (Luthar and Cicchetti, 2000, p. 858). In the social work context, increasing attention has been given to resilience as a protective factor engendering well-being (Bonnano, 2004; Grant and Kinman, 2012), with linkages to emotional and social competencies (Kinman and Grant, 2011; Morrison, 2007), positive emotions, optimism and hope (Collins, 2008; Koenig and Spano, 2007; Tugade and Fredrickson, 2004) and hardiness and stress-resistant qualities (Beddoe et al., 2011). Need for resilience is especially important given the high rates of stress and burnout experienced by social work practitioners (Bride and Figley, 2007; Collins et al., 2010) and staff retention concerns (Kinman and Grant, 2011; Nissly et al., 2005; Searle and Patent, 2012).

The impetus for developing emotional resilience has gained prominence in recent social work reforms in the UK. The Social Work Reform Board's (SWRB, 2011) professional capabilities framework has set out rigorous criteria for the recruitment and training of student social workers. Munro (2011) highlighted the need for front line workers to demonstrate ‘professional confidence’ and the Social Work Task Force similarly identified the need for social workers to develop empathy, resilience, common sense and analytical skills (SWTF, 2009). In the context of child protection, Lord Laming reinforced the need for practitioners to ‘develop the emotional resilience to manage the challenges they will face when dealing with potentially difficult families’ (Lord Laming, 2009, p. 52). In the rapidly changing context of social work education, while resilience has been prioritised as an essential skill for social workers, far less is known about the process by which student social workers learn to manage and regulate their emotions.

This study attempts to deepen understanding about emotional resilience among social work students by drawing on a phenomenological approach (Chodorow, 1999; Heidegger, 1962; Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Emotion, meanings and context are explored as ‘lived experiences’ which are embodied and developed inter-subjectively through the shared, overlapping and relational engagement with the world (Smith et al., 2009). The paper begins with a review of the resilience literature, focusing on stress and resilience among social work students. A conceptual framework is provided exploring interconnections between resilience, self-identity and embodiment. Findings highlight social work students' narratives on perceived role of emotions in social work and reflections of facing and overcoming adversity. Implications for social work education are also discussed.

Stress, resilience and social work students

Resilience is a positive construct which enables individuals to ‘overcome stressors or withstand negative life events and, not only recover from such experiences, but also find personal meaning in them’ (Grant and Kinman, 2012, p. 1). It has also been defined as ‘the potential to exhibit resourcefulness’ (Pooley and Cohen, 2010, p. 30) and ‘adaptive capacities under conditions of environmental, stress or uncertainty’ (Klohen, 1996, p. 1068). Resilience has also been associated with effective communication mechanisms, in ‘crafting normalcy’ and providing ‘identity anchors’ to guide the individual beyond the adverse experience (Buzzanell, 2010). Studies have found that training to be a social worker can be even more stressful than the pressures faced by social work professionals in practice (Pottage and Huxley, 1996; Tobin and Carson, 1997; Wilks and Spivey, 2010). The stressors of being a social work student are compounded by life-stage, relational stress, financial pressures as well as academic stress and concerns about placement (Wilks et al., 2010). In the UK, recent studies by Kinman and Grant (2011) found over 40 per cent of the 240 social work students in their sample reporting high rates of psychological distress. Collins et al. (2010) similarly observed that, while social work students reported high levels of self-fulfilment, a significant proportion also reported feelings of low self-esteem and emotional exhaustion. In a recent comparative study, Coffey et al. (2012) noted that British students reported significantly higher levels of demands and lower levels of social support than Indian students. These findings are not limited only to student social workers. Jack and Donnellan (2010) observed that newly qualified social workers in England reported a decreasing sense of well-being when they first entered professional practice.

Beddoe et al. (2011) provide a helpful framework to identify the factors contributing to the development of resilience among social work students and practitioners, including: (i) factors that reside in the individual, (ii) factors linked to organisational contexts and (iii) factors linked to educational preparation and training. Individual-level factors include optimism in the face of adversity (Collins, 2008), effective coping and problem-solving skills (Wilks and Spivey, 2010) and taking care of one's self (Beddoe et al., 2011). As Mike Bush (2011) notes, social workers are just as vulnerable as service users to mental health problems; failure to look after one's self can lead to disastrous consequences. Managing personal and professional boundaries and work–life balance promote subjective well-being and longevity in the profession (Graham and Shier, 2010; Lewis and Rajan-Rankin, 2013). Skills for self-reflection, empathy and emotional intelligence have also been linked to the development of resilience (Grant and Kinman, 2012; Morrison, 2007).

Increasing attention has also been directed towards broader cultural, organisational and environmental factors. Resilience has been found to have global relevance with cultural and context-specific characteristics (Ungar, 2008) including life-course variations (Hildan et al., 2008). Organisations can also be resilient according to van Breda (2001), wherein workplace systems can either exhibit resourceful adaptation to structural stressors or reproduce institutional rigidities. For instance, lack of supervision and poor managerial support (Jack and Donnellan, 2010) can especially stunt students' ability to reflect and develop skills for resilience. Morrison (1997) similarly makes the link between emotional resilience and organisational resourcefulness in his description of ‘emotionally intelligent workplaces’. This helps to demystify the role of resilience as the skill belonging only to ‘extraordinary’ individuals and places it within the remit of the ‘ordinary’ (Bonnano, 2004; Collins, 2008)—a learnt skill which can and should be taught as part of social work training. Enabling students to identify early signs of stress and burnout (Collins et al., 2010), teaching mindfulness (Lynn, 2009), empathy and reflection (Grant and Kinman, 2012), supportive supervision and emotionally sustaining organisational cultures (McAllister and McKinnon, 2009) can help foster resilience.

Resilience in context: interconnections with power, diversity and self-identity

It can be argued that one of the limitations of the current resilience literature is the residualistic focus on individual skills and competencies which overlooks the ‘whole self’, the integration of the personal and the professional (Hughes, 2011). Self-hood and emotional resilience are intrinsically linked. As Giddens (1991, pp. 53–4) notes, self-identity is ‘the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography’. Awareness and mindfulness about one's own values, beliefs and prejudices are central to professional development, but also personal well-being (Lynn, 2009). This process of discovering, challenging and reconstituting the self can often be painful and students may experience low self-esteem and disillusionment (Collins et al., 2010; Jack and Donnellan, 2010; Kondrat, 1999). Being a student social worker can involve a tumultuous process of being outside one's comfort zone (Beddoe et al., 2011), being confronted with distressing subjects (Bride and Figley, 2007), challenging one's personal values and negotiating personal and professional boundaries (O'Leary, 2012). Connectivity of the ‘self’ within the resilience process enables a deeper exploration of situated individual experiences.

A further limitation is that the social, political and cultural contexts within which emotions are constructed are often overlooked. The concept of resilience thus becomes apolitical. As Sarah Ahmed (2004, p. 4) reminds us, ‘emotionality as a claim about a subject or a collective is clearly dependent on relationships of power, which endow “others” with meaning and value’. Critical theory perspectives are particularly helpful in locating emotion and self-hood within wider frameworks of power and domination that ‘is structural, yet also personally experienced’ (Agger, 1991, 1998, pp. 4–5, cited in Fook, 2012, p. 17). Emotions are experienced and reproduced within existing hierarchies and embodied social categories of race, religion, sexual orientations, class, caste and gender. Fineman (1993, p. 5) expresses the need to take a situated view of emotions which ‘are attributed to one or another social group according to cultural/role expectations’. Performativity of emotions within specific social contexts hence will inevitably involve the ‘valuing’ of some forms of diversity over others.

Identity and diversity are important embodied concerns for social work students who come from different racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. Widening participation initiatives, for instance, have been a positive step in embracing diversity (Jones, 2009), but can also lead to value conflicts between personal, cultural and religious values and professional codes of practice (Fairtlough et al., 2012). Aymer and Patni (2011) observed the tensions that may emerge when black students with Christian values profess homophobic views, creating a clash between ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ forms of diversity. Diversity and cultural identity provide important social contexts within which students express/suppress their emotions. Environments where culture hybridity is suppressed can lead to the reproduction of dominant culture and the negation of individual identities that do not fit the field of containment (Sharma, 2006). Keeping in mind the location of emotion within socio-political and cultural contexts, and the connective thread of self-identity, this study seeks to explore resilience as a situated and embodied process.

A phenomenological approach to emotion

A critical examination of emotion, self-identity and resilience can be achieved most effectively through qualitative enquiry, particularly by using the interpretativist tradition. In his classic text Being and Time, Heidegger (1962) develops the concepts of the ‘person-in-context’ as a way of examining the person's relationship to the world based on the position s/he inhabits within it. This relational approach towards examining subjectivity ‘affords the embodied, intentional actor a range of physically-grounded (what is possible) and inter-subjectively-grounded (what is meaningful) options’ (Smith et al., 2009, p. 17). ‘Embodiment’ or the perceptive awareness of one's emotions can be understood ‘as a sense of bodylines which may extend beyond physical limits’ (Smith et al., 2009, p. 199). This resonates with Merleau-Ponty's (1962) notion of the ‘body-subject’ in which experience begins with the body but, through the process of awareness and critical social judgement, extends into the social world. This analytical framework enables us to enter the social work students' world and to view their emotional journeys through their own eyes.


In this study, a hermeneutic phenomenological approach was adopted which examines experience as ‘a lived process, an unfurling of perspectives and meanings … unique to the person's embodied and situated relationship to the world’ (Smith et al., 2009, p. 21). Semi-structured interviews were conducted with ten undergraduate social work students. Purposive sampling techniques were adopted to include male/female and full-time/part-time students currently enrolled on the undergraduate social work programme. Alumni, NQSW and trailers/students on abeyance were excluded. Personal tutors were asked to share details of the study with their tutees and interested participants contacted the researcher voluntarily. The participant information e-mail shared with the students stated that the research study is aimed at understanding how social work students engaged with their emotions when facing challenging personal and professional life situations. While the term ‘resilience’ was not explicitly used, it was made clear that the purpose of the study was to unpack the complex interplay between the students' sense of self-identity and their emotions as they negotiated the social work degree at university. The researcher was constantly mindful of her ‘dual role’ as teacher and researcher and, to ensure that prior knowledge of students' personal situations did not influence the selection process, the researcher did not sample any of her own tutees. Ethical approval was granted by Brunel University and written informed consent was gained from all participants. Interview durations were between 1.5 and two hours. The semi-structured interview guide included a range of questions including student motivations for joining social work, their perceived role of emotions in social work practice and their reflections on a particularly difficult life event which they found challenging and how they coped with it. Feedback on institutional support and recommendations for social work education were also sought. All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed in full. Identifying characteristics of student participants were masked and names were anonymised to protect confidentiality.

Participant demographic characteristics represented a heterogeneous sample. Three students were black British, six white British and one white Irish. There were two men and eight women in the study, consistent with the smaller percentage of men in social work programmes (Parker and Crabtree, 2012). Eight participants were mature students in the forty-five-to-fifty-five age group, while two students were in the nineteen-to-thirty age group (mean age 40.7), representing the larger presence of non-traditional students (Jones, 2009). Seven out of the ten participants were parents, while three did not have children. One student identified as being lesbian, while the others reported being heterosexual.

Smith et al.'s (2009) interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) approach was used as a guide for data analysis. The transcribed data were coded by two independent coders. Given that the IPA method is committed to a detailed examination of a case, the following stages of analysis were adopted: a close line-by-line reading of the transcript for exploratory themes; identification of emergent patterns including convergence, divergence and nuance; deeper reflection and interpretation of intra-psychic processes underpinning participant experience; developing a structure and schema to organise themes; writing up and developing full narratives explaining themes within and across case; and, finally, double hermeneutics achieved by reflection and researcher's own perceptions of participant claims (see Smith et al., 2009, pp. 79–81).

While qualitative validity can be explored in numerous ways (Geertz, 1973; Guba and Lincoln, 1989), in this study, Yardley's (2000) four criteria of qualitative validity were explored, including: sensitivity to context, commitment and rigour, transparency and coherence and impact and importance (Yardley, 2000, as cited in Smith et al., 2009, pp. 179–85). Using the IPA method, the researcher addressed these criteria by being mindful of time, place, context and embodied characteristics of the participants and the way they shaped their responses. Both synthesis and contradictions in narrative text were identified and represented as transparently as possible. The potential impact of this study includes the methodological contributions of using the IPA method in providing deeper understanding of process-based resilience and highlighting the embedded context of identity, diversity and anti-oppressive practice within which resilience can be nurtured as a professional skill for social work students.


Several interlinked themes emerged which expanded on the relationship between emotion, self-identity and resilience. Social work students had divergent views about the role of emotion in the social work context. Emotionality in the ‘self’ was met with unease and fear of being unprofessional. Critical incident narratives revealed different coping mechanisms in overcoming adversity including active resistance, relying on spirituality and re-evaluation of life priorities. Embodied experiences of social work students in dealing with diversity in the classroom/placement underscored the need for anti-oppressive social work education. Students were able to demonstrate empathetic concern when working with service users, even though this also required them to reflect on their own past experiences.

Perceived role of emotion in social work

Students exhibited varying degrees of (dis)comfort in dealing with their own emotions on the social work course. Fleur describes her first placement experience of dealing with a case of female genital mutilation (FGM):

… my first experience was really quite shattering … there was this case of genital mutilation, it was very painful and I was quite shocked, I didn't read very much about it, but the fact the baby was so tiny, I felt like oh gosh! I just felt, just sorry, quite sorry I suppose for all of them, and the parents too in a way. I guess I saw both sides. I just try not to judge on personal impressions, to keep myself out of it, so I wouldn't make any judgements about them.

In contrast, both Adelle and Mary show a growing awareness of the need to acknowledge one's emotions as an important aspect of their social work role:

… sure, it can be difficult to deal with one's own emotions on this course. Like earlier on, I used to be really overwhelmed when I was working a child protection case, and I used to feel just horrible taking a child away from her mother. Now, its not really different or better, I just … I can just handle myself a bit better I guess, I know now I have to hold myself together till its safer, but you can bet when I am back at home or with my friends, I would bawl my eyes out (Adelle).

Coming here on a course that is highly emotional … some people don't even realise that they are going to experience difficult feelings and emotions … if they are out of touch with their emotions I think this is quite dangerous, because they are not forced to deal with them. So if they have a tutorial … then they are forced to face their feelings about the course (Mary).

Containment of emotion emerges as a common theme in these narratives. Fleur's experience of working on the FGM case highlights her feeling of being overwhelmed and ‘shattered’. Shock and horror at the alien custom suggest ‘othering’ and there is a distancing of the self from the case as an attempt to contain distressing emotions (‘keeping myself out of it’). Implicit within this narrative is the devaluing of particular embodied characteristics (emotions) as non-professional (Fook, 2012). In contrast, Adelle and Mary begin to recognise their emotions as part of their professional identity. However, references to ‘dangerous practice’ and waiting ‘till it is safer’ once again reinforce the view that self-emotion requires containment, a suppression of feeling in emotion work (Hochschild, 1983; Fineman, 1993).

Critical incident: facing and overcoming adversity

A critical incident technique was used (Davies and Kinloch, 2000; Fook, 2012) to explore students' lived experiences of facing and overcoming adversity. Students were asked ‘Can you share with me a major life event or experience which you have found particularly challenging and how you coped with it?’ The critical incident was then deconstructed to allow ‘new structures or processes, cultures or climates … new meanings to emerge’ (Fook, 2012, p. 112). In the first extract, Mary shares her childhood experiences of abuse and racial discrimination by her grandmother and the processes by which she challenged this oppressive practice:

I have lived for a time with my grandmother and she didn't like me very much … and I used to dread living with her and leaving my mothers house. My sister is fairer than me and my grandmother made it very obvious that … my whole experience of my childhood was coloured by the way my grandmother treated me … ummm there were little ways … verbal abuse, negative words to make me feel small … , she used to hit me often … at the time it made me feel quite negative about myself.

Well, I challenged her as an adult, when I was about 19 … looking back I can't believe I had the guts to actually say to her ‘look this is how you make me feel’. It was important to me you know, for my self, to do this … I have learnt to know that its not me [emphasis hers] … it's her. I mean I have other people who are happy with me, so I slowly began to realize there isn't anything wrong with me.

This narrative highlights ‘colourism’ as a covert form of racism that occurs when dominant cultural discourses of ‘whiteness’ are internalised by minority groups (Bhabha, 1994; Jeyasingham, 2012). Verbal and physical abuse has a damaging effect on Mary's sense of self-hood. She responds by engaging in active resistance and challenging her grandmother's racism. Resistance involves an awareness of one's own power and a refusal to participate in discriminatory practices (Fook, 2012). By making her voice heard and distancing herself from the oppressive ‘other’, Mary is able to rebalance the power structures between herself and her grandmother, and demonstrates agentic process.

Josephine shares her distress when she faces multiple deaths and bereavement in her family and her conflict in sharing this information with her personal tutor:

This year has been very very hard for me. Just at the beginning of the spring term, my brother-in-law was suddenly killed. That wasn't the only bad thing that happened to me. I was already struggling you know, I had an assignment due, and I took some time off work to go for the funeral in Zambia. When I came back, I learnt that my brother had been admitted to hospital for an allergic response to medication. After that … when my mother was diagnosed with cancer I just felt that this was the end of me, like I couldn't go on.

How did I cope? I don't know with the grace of God, I just kept with my faith and tried to believe that God has a plan. I remember now, that when it happened I didn't want to tell anyone at the university. I felt like I was drowning and I couldn't speak. I know now I should have told my tutor Horace [pseudonym] but just somehow I couldn't. We are meant to be strong to be on the social work course …. But then when I did tell him, he was very supportive. I don't know what I would have done without his help or the help of the university.

Josephine experiences multiple forms of loss including bereavement in the family, loss of self (‘the end of me’) and voicelessness in not being able to share her problems. Assumptions around being ‘strong’ give us insight into her perception of the professional role. Belief in a larger plan, spirituality and faith give her the inner strength to cope with this situation. This is consistent with several studies that note the importance of spirituality in social work (Koenig and Spano, 2007).

In this third extract, Peter shares a low moment in his life, when he was facing bankruptcy and the possibility of losing his home:

The most difficult time in my life? I would definitely say it was when I had decided to start my own business … we lost the business and had to declare bankruptcy. That was definitely the lowest point in my life. I was unemployed … after 20 years of working in financial services to come to this, well it really shook me, it shook all of us. I … remember thinking at the time … ‘how did this happen?’.

Peter's method of coping with his bankruptcy involved a re-evaluation of his life. This turned out to be a turning point for him, and in shaping his decision to become a social worker:

Those were dark times … my whole life (was) structured around what we used to call financial freedom which actually is a complete illusion … in hindsight what I did try to do was unachievable and I learnt from that… . So when I had an opportunity to reflect and think about all the things I wanted to change in my life, I thought I want to be a better person … that's how I came to social work.

These narratives are tied together by the common thread of human suffering and loss of power over self, body and material possessions. The destabilising effects of these adverse events on these students' lives are accompanied by a crucial loss of self. Coping mechanisms draw on both individual resources (reflection, spirituality) and challenging structural domination to overcome the situation.

Embodiment, identity and difference

Minority experiences of race, religion and sexuality were repetitive themes where student expressed value conflicts. In particular, the ‘visibility’ of some forms of minority identities (example black students) and the ‘invisibility’ of other forms (gay and lesbian students) (Aymer and Patni, 2011) was a sticking point for students. Religion also plays a role, as fundamentalist Christian values by some students could lead to a rejection of other students' identities (homosexuality) (Melendez and LaSala, 2006). In the following two extracts, the embodiment of diversity, clash between personal and professional values, and emotional dilemmas emerging from this are narrated by students. In the first abstract, Clarissa recounts her struggle with being a lesbian woman facing homophobia in the classroom:

The only place I haven't come out, I haven't come out to the college … I was really upset in this lesson when you were talking about gay people and equalities legislation. Hearing people's views, that really upset me. I kind of figured I felt like of all the places in the world I should feel safe to come out it should be social work! I felt like there was a split within myself … . It (being gay) is part of me, it's not something that's out there … I don't use it as a weapon. I'm quite an introverted person about my sexuality. It does feel kind of like leading a ‘double life’. Because of the views that certain students have towards gay people on the course … I think the university has to do more. I mean (it's) ok to not be racist … why is it that homophobia not challenged in that way? (emphasis in original)

Clarissa's conflict lies within her own ambivalence about her sexuality being a private matter, and the need to raise her voice in dissent to the prejudicial attitudes of her colleagues. The terms ‘split within myself’, ‘double life’ and using being gay as a ‘weapon’ symbolise the conflict she faces about feeling silenced about her sexuality in what she perceives to be an unsafe environment. This feeling of frustration and anger is heightened when she compares the more visible form of racial discrimination being viewed as politically unacceptable, even as her own gayness is viewed as invisible. In the second abstract, Shereen shares her difficulties with coping with Islamaphobia:

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