Note: I am a political scientist, not a psychologist. This delve into psychology is a bit dangerous, but my first two posts in this series has pushed me here, and I promised a third so I’ll give it a go. I may be way off base — I often write sounding more sure of myself than I am.
Up until now I’ve argued that: a) identity is not simply the individual Cartesian ego, but a complex mix of internal subconscious drives/instincts, rational thought, and external factors such as how society and culture create much of who each of us becomes. Moreover, by focusing on the “rational ego” as the center point of identity, people become blind to how much they (their desires, perspectives, beliefs, etc.) are either emotionally based from the subconscious, or are formed by the society around them. People get the illusion the who they are is summed up by the discrete individual “self” that they see in the mirror.
The hard part about answering “Who am I?” is to become conscious of as much of those subconscious drives as possible (especially as they show themselves in strong emotions, desires, fears, etc.), and recognize the social nature of ones’ essence. Margaret Thatcher infamously said there is no society, only individuals and families. I’d turn that on its head, there are no pure individuals, society permeates each of us.
I believe the “self” or “ego” often fights against efforts at true introspection — and the more insecure one is about oneself, the harder it fights! It is threatening. “I know who I am, damn it,” it says, “I know what I want and I figure out how to get it.” Sure, there may be a subconscious, they admit. When I see a beautiful woman at the beach there may be some part of me that feels like “I want to be with her,” but I, the self/ego, have the power to say “no, that would be wrong.”
But wait. Why would the self/ego exercise such power? Why would one not want to go make a pass at a beautiful stranger? Is it just the potential consequences — I’d love to sleep with her, but if my wife found out it would mess up my life? Probably not. Smart people, like, oh, Governors of states like New York and South Carolina, both of whom had Presidential aspirations, severely damaged their political careers because they didn’t think about the consequences of their choices. I suspect faithful spouses are also driven by something other than fear of retribution.
Who one is includes the power and will of the self/ego to resist temptation, or better, to decide which temptations to succumb to, and which to resist. This is closely tied to identity. Being Muslim or Jewish involves particular rules, observances, fasts, and the like. The more one resists the temptation to break these rules, likely the stronger one identifies with that religious community. A western Muslim who drinks, half heartedly celebrates Ramadan, and doesn’t pay the full Zakat probably feels less defined by being Muslim than a devout Muslim that abides by the rules.
Last time I said that reflection, imagination, and perhaps edification — the arts, philosophy, etc. — might help move beyond simply categorizing identity as a mix of internal and external factors. One can use the imagination first to probe the social construction of one’s own identity — religion, class, ethnicity. How much is one shaped by these (even if one doesn’t overtly identify with them)? Imagine yourself in a different socio-economic class, as having grown up as a member of a different faith or ethnic group. What would be constant, what would change?
Two examples: Upwardly mobile Americans usually identify with capitalism and markets. Before it fell, the upwardly mobile in the Soviet Union identified with communism — the party was the place for someone ambitious and career conscious. Dissidents were often from the arts. Business leaders in the US might have been Communist party leaders if they had been born there. Devout Christians might, if they had been born in Cairo, have instead become devout Muslims. Using the imagination like this can help one get beneath the labels and think about how the “self” would be identified in vastly different contexts.
Next, we should honestly think about our own desires and drives. Is one driven to try to succeed, better oneself, compare oneself to others, look for sexual gratification, eat, compete, help others, care for others, or lose oneself in nature? How many of these drives does one consciously work to overcome. Which ones do you think you should overcome but do not (and why do you think you should, and why don’t you)? In other words, to find an identity you have to probe those parts of the self outside the “Cartesian ego,” and explore ones own thoughts, feelings, drives and social programming as if one is exploring a different country.
If one is honest — self-critically honest, and resists the ego’s rationalizations about why something isn’t important, or why being in a different class or ethnic group wouldn’t make a difference (the ego-self would like to think that it would be the same anywhere, just navigating different circumstances — it doesn’t want to lose the central focus of identity), then I think a lot of self-growth is possible.
After honest, self-critical introspection, I suspect most people fall between two extremes. First, one might find that he or she truly loves and likes his or herself. Not a narcisstic love (I think that’s probably more the ego trying to love its rational Cartesian center while denying the true self), but true understanding of ones’ own strengths and weaknesses, and a sense of satisfaction about who one is, and how one is handling the stresses of living in the world. Others, however, might be troubled by what they have found, and want to resist thinking about this, believing that beneath the image given to the world is a bad person, shameful of the drives he or she harbors within, mired in guilt over when those drives got the better of the person, and feel remorse over how ones’ life in the world is going — with a pessimism about anything changing.
To the latter, the next step again involves the imagination. If there is guilt or remorse, then there must be a sense of something one could do better. What kind of life would make one happy — what desires and drives need fulfillment, what principles should guide ones’ life? Here the rational ego might say “it doesn’t matter, nothing matters, you just go for what you want.” That’s the rational side giving into skepticism — skepticism as a kind of defense against guilt. In Freudian terms it’s given up trying to balance the id and superego, and instead passively watches their battles with a sense of helplessness.
Here it is time for the ego-self to use its imagination and newfound knowledge of these forces he or she has felt helpless against, and construct an image of the person he or she would like to be. Focus not on external things (i.e., successful business woman), but qualities and traits. Honest, dependable, fun loving, etc. Imaginately figure out an identity matching these traits, and claim it as your own. Re-assert control at the most basic level — who am I?
For those happy with themselves, the same thing applies. Imaginatively think through why one feels good about their personal exploration, and then think up an identity to claim. To me, the identity can be less a label or set of words (e.g, spiritual teacher or crusader against injustice) then a feeling of what makes the self feel balanced. The imagination can delve into ideas that have no clear verbal equivalent. The answer to “Who am I” may be a smile and a sense of a balanced self. It should evoke the traits and ideals that had been explored.
For instance, my name could take on the meaning of my thoughts about myself in the areas discussed in this series of posts. I could also find a short hand label that would evoke those thoughts ands emotions. “Devoted mother” might mean a lot more than the words alone signify, it may entail personal senses of what devotion means, what motherhood means, and those connections with different parts of the self.
If you read this far, thanks! Again, my knowledge of psychology is meager, and I’m literally using this blog to speculate and think through things that are on my mind.