Who am I? From a social constructionist perspective, it's a difficult question to answer.
In fact, it’s problematic to say anything meaningful about an essential ‘me’ without thinking about myself, how I am, within a particular context. After all, we never exist in an existential or experiential vacuum. Perhaps it’s a bit like 'figure' and 'ground' in Gestalt: I am who I am against a backdrop of culture, experience etc. and, of course, God. So, if the context changes, who I am
So again, who am I? Lots of things, partly depending on my ego state at the time. The notion of ego state has been developed in transactional analysis (TA) as a way of understanding how we are in relation to ourselves and others. It suggests we are in constantly shifting psychological states which influence how we are, feel, perceive and behave towards others and, therefore, what we correspondingly evoke in and experience of them.
You may have heard of TA’s parent/adult/child model. Sometimes I relate to another person a bit like a nurturing or, alternatively, punitive parent, at another time I may relate to the same person as an equal (‘adult’), at another time I might relate to them as a playful or mischievous child etc. How I relate to the other evokes a response in them, potentially shifting their ego state too and
creating all sorts of interesting dynamics between us.
I was asked recently which ego state I like most, which feels most like the ‘real’ me. It’s a great question and it begs all sorts of other interesting questions, e.g. what does a real me actually mean? How can I know which is the real me? I can prefer to be in certain ego states at certain times but what influences that preference, i.e. why do I prefer to be in it rather than in another state?
It’s quite possible that in any given moment, one 'me' would like to hold a sensible adult-adult conversation, another 'me' might simultaneously reject that and prefer to be more playful, like a free & cheeky child, another 'me' may frown on my own behaviour like a critical parent...all at the same time. This is one reason why social constuctionists challenge the notion of a single, unified
Perhaps we are more fragmented, inconsistent, potentially self-contradictory and conflicted then we normally feel aware of or comfortable with. It’s challenging to think of ourselves in this way, to imagine the boundaries between our selves and our contexts being less firm, less fixed, more permeable, than we normally assume. It’s challenging to think of ourselves, the person we are, as fluid, shifting, evolving...what do you think?
I find the notion of shifting ego states very compelling. It certainly resonates with my own personal experience. I’ve often thought, it only takes a moment to change the whole world. Here I am one moment feeling low, fragile, anxious, under-confident then, unexpectedly, someone smiles warmly and reassuringly and – hey – the whole world instantly brightens. It’s like the blazing sunshine appearing suddenly from behind a dark cloud.
We have a postcard on the kitchen wall at home with an expression in German, Jeder Moment ist ein neuer Anfang, every moment is a new beginning. Sometimes new beginnings are of our own making, we make a new decision, take a new course of action, choose to see things differently. Other times it feels like new beginnings happen to us, as if caught unawares and finding ourselves propelled by inner feelings or outer circumstances.
A social worker friend of mine in Germany would sometimes say, ‘Es ist eine Frage der Wahrnehmung’, it’s a question of perception. Our perspective changes as we shift between ego states. It’s a phrase borrowed from transactional analysis – how one minute we can feel clear, adult, in the present but in another moment can feel and behave more like parental figures from our past, or how we felt and behaved as a child.
I remember one occasion when I was feeling very tired and stressed at work, but trying to push on ahead anyway. I met with a senior leader and could see a look of surprise and concern on his face as we spoke. It took me by surprise too. I hadn’t been aware of how I was feeling, how defensively I was responding, until I saw his expression. It felt like looking into a mirror, seeing an inverted reflection of myself, a moment of raised awareness.
We can regress into experiences and patterns of responding from our past. We find ourselves feeling off-balance, acting out of character, sometimes surprised by our own reactions. I’m curious about how this happens, what triggers it, how to be aware of it happening in the moment, how to shift back consciously into adult state when it does happen. It’s an ongoing challenge and yet a great opportunity for personal growth.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.