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 changes too.
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 persona.
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?
If someone were to ask you the question, ‘Who are you?’ what would you say in reply? It’s a strangely difficult question. Ask me about my family, what I do for a job, my hopes and aspirations, what I like and dislike etc, no problem. But ask me who I am and I struggle to know what to say.
Is it that I don’t know who I am, or I’m not sure how to answer the question without a broader frame of reference? I’m tempted to respond, ‘It all depends on what you mean by the question’ but that still doesn’t answer it. The only satisfactory response I can find is, ‘I’m a child of God.’
Social psychologists often propose that we know who we are, or what we are like as a person, by observing our own behaviour in a variety of situations. We notice how we behave then attribute personal values, attitudes, motivation etc. to it. Over a lifetime of experiences, we discover who we really are.
There’s something about this theory that resonates for me. After all, I’ve sometimes been surprised by how I’ve reacted in situations, as if my reactions and behaviours have been different to how I had imagined myself. Over time, I develop a picture of myself that feels more whole, more reliable.
An example comes to mind of taking part in a disaster relief team effort in Albania during the Kosova crisis. Having watched harrowing images on TV, I had expected to feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. I was surprised, therefore, by my own sense of intrigue and excitement as the trip unfolded.
This theory gets tricky, however, when it comes to making decisions, making conscious choices. I face a dilemma and must choose a course of action. If I take the safe option, it reveals something about the kind of person I am. Conversely, if I take the risky option, that too reveals something about me.
The problem is that this hypothesis feels too deterministic, as if the kind of person I am is already set in stone, as if exposure to different experiences simply reveals what’s already there. But could it be that I have free choice and that my choices actually shape who I am and become?
An example comes to mind from the TV sci-fi series, Space Above and Beyond. The colonel faces an agonising decision over whether to accept a mission that will result in almost certain death. He takes the high risk option, having decided that’s the kind of person he wants and therefore chooses to be.
We experience tension when we fail to live up to the kind of person we believe we are, how we perceive ourselves to be. This tension could be driven by e.g. the demands of conscience, cultural norms, the expectations of significant others, our own aspirations or a need to preserve our self esteem.
So, who am I? I am the unique me, the genetic-physical-spiritual person that only I am, the socially-constructed me, that is, a person shaped by language, culture and interactions with others, and the chosen me, the person I have become as a result of my own free decisions and actions. So...who are you?
‘For millennia, humanity has turned to myth and religion to answer our most profound questions, but in this new TV series, professor X uses science to explain…’ A provocative advert for a new cosmology show. The presenter is a talented physicist and gifted communicator and it does make compelling viewing. The thing that struck me most however was the writer's unquestioning confidence in the ability of science per se (a) to explain ‘our most profound questions’ and (b) to supersede alternative explanations.
This claim begs all sorts of important questions. For example, what are the most profound questions in life and what are the limits of the explanatory power of science? By curious coincidence, on the same day as reading this magazine advert, I also read a paper on Gestalt therapy by the late Ernest Becker, international lecturer in psychology, sociology and anthropology. In it, he posed a stark challenge to psychological therapies based on existential questions they cannot hope or begin to address.
‘We have this existential dilemma in the back of everything we do: this terrible anxiety about who we are and what we’re doing on this planet, what it means to have our name and our face; we keep running to the mirror to look at that face – we don’t really know who the person is…so we run back and take a pill or a drink, or we read a book, or we make love or call our mother long-distance or something. We don’t know what we’re doing here, and this is a source of great anxiety for us.’
He goes on. ‘We don’t know how we came to be here. Where do babies some from? ‘Sperm and egg’ I can hear you say. But it’s not an answer at all. We don’t know where babies come from. You get married, you’re sitting at table having breakfast – there are two of you – and a year later there’s somebody else sitting there. They just came literally out of nowhere and they keep growing in your environment. If you’re honest with yourself, you don’t know where they came from. It’s a total mystery.’
I find Becker's challenge refreshing and inspiring, his refusal to allow the totality of reality and meaning in human experience to be reduced to that which can be measured empirically. He challenged the notion that psychological explanations alone can be sufficient to address pressing and persistent questions about human origin, identity, meaning and purpose. Cosmology too explains many interesting and valuable things about the universe, but these are essentially spiritual questions that lie outside its scope.
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 20,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org