‘Who am I? Where am I going? What sort of person will I end up being?’ These are questions about self-identity. Genealogy websites help people trace their ancestors. This is an extremely popular hobby. It shows the importance of one aspect of self-identity as we each ask ‘Where do I come from’.
How we see ourselves influences how we function in life and people’s behaviour towards us e.g. levels of happiness, anxiety, social integration, self-esteem, and life-satisfaction.
The way the world thinks about us
The world sees us in terms of physical size, gender, age, health, family situation, job and social status, income, etc. Or in relation to the roles we perform e.g. team player, employer, neighbour, family member, friend. Or how we come across to others e.g. level of intelligence, social skills, whether talkative, calm or emotional, elated or depressed etc.
Private dimension to self-identity
There is also however a private dimension to self-identity. For example if I secretly see myself as a great gardener I might avidly read gardening books. If I see myself as ‘old school’ I might tend to read magazine more often than perusing the internet.
Some of our self-identity is expressed in the style of our clothes: ethnic fashion, formal wear, business casual, sports, goth, punk, etc. It’s not so easy, however, to put into words who we feel we really are deep down.
Some of us have a sense of inner well-being and confidence about the future despite going through the tough times of set-back and adversity. Others of us may be basically unhappy and dissatisfied with ourselves.
Self-identity as a mixture of characteristics
Psychologist Carl Rogers thought that emotionally healthy people tend not to identify with roles created for them by others’ expectations, and instead look within themselves for the genuine thing.
The question ‘Who am I?’ rather invites an all or nothing answer. However, one’s self-concept is often a collection of beliefs about oneself. Our self-knowledge may be ill-defined. Are we not allowed to be complex creatures with a mixture of inconsistent features? Can I not be both kind and lazy, honest and unreliable, good and bad?
Youngsters particularly tend to be different people in different social contexts. Who hasn’t noticed the teenager who is happy and chatty with his or her friends but a different kettle of fish at home, at times moody and quiet. Which is the real person? How to find out who you are?
Studies of teenagers on-line suggests that anonymity seems to be important. It helps them explore their own priorities and values by experimenting in the way they express various, and sometimes inconsistent, opinions about for example personal relationships.
Integration and self-identity
What we like will vary enormously especially when we are younger. Whether it be wanting to win arguments, satisfy curiosity, achieve success, find a loving partner, etc.
Yet each new interest we develop takes its place in relation to the others and works together with them.
I would say that as we grow into adulthood, we start to become more self-aware and also more integrated as a person. In other words, disharmony between our traits slowly reduces.
According to this picture of personal growth, anything which is not in harmony gets pushed to the side. An underlying current gradually forms which draws and bears the person along even though they may not be conscious of this. What they love and value in their life develops in them.
It explains why people find certain things more interesting, and why they are living the way we are. In other words if the individual continues in this way there is the growth of a dominant motivation. What they really want begins to define who they are.
Self-identity relates to basic values that influence occupational choice. For example, the investment banker values money, and the school teacher values education and helping students.
Aside from job choices either negative and positive values show up in other areas that the individual may tend to focus on. It could be gaining power for the sake of getting their own way in things, achieving celebrity status, or accruing wealth. It could be producing quality service or products. Or perhaps wanting new knowledge and skills. Being a loving parent or spouse with happy relationships. It could be any one of a number of things.
So what energises us? What makes us want to get out of bed every morning? What are we living life for? The answer is the love that rules our life and we see it as good. It defines what is meaningful in our daily life. It moulds the principles which we follow.
Even our closest friends cannot tell for certain what underlying motivation rules our hearts. We may not even know ourselves. But nevertheless, I am sure, sooner or later, the whole colour and character of the way we live our life is derived from our ruling love.
Conclusion about self-identity
Each person’s deepest motivation is unique. However, from an ethical perspective we might want to consider whether our ruling motive is good or bad, involving concern for others, deeper principles, materialistic concerns or mainly self-interest. Self-identity continues to be a work in progress as we try to live out our hopes and values.
“What we love constitutes our life, and whatever we love we not only do freely but also think freely…If this doing and this thinking are not working together in us, then they are not part of our life.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)
Copyright 2019 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems