This is one of the most common questions asked. And it sounds simple enough, right? If asked in an administrative context or in a colloquial manner, you just say your name and perhaps provide a few demographic details. However, it is also one of the most fundamental questions of life. Who ARE you? Now this demands a much more complex answer, and most people invariably falter in their response.
The concept of the self has been the realm of philosophers for centuries (Hume, Kant, Plato, etc.), and theories of the self form the basis of social psychology. We live in a society which is obsessed with oneself – all one needs to do is browse the social media for a few minutes to understand the extent of this obsession– and yet, when asked, “Who are you?”, most people would probably provide a description of their role in life – I’m a student, I’m a bank manager, a stay-at-home mum, etc. But that doesn’t even start to scratch at the surface of who a person really is.
Psychologists argue that we are made up of self-concept content, and that is, what one believes to be true about oneself, and self-concept structures, that is, how our idea of who we are is represented in our memory. The Five-Factor Model of Personality provides us with the Big Five – the major five traits that are used to identify the bone structure of our personality so to speak (extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and neuroticism). But the truth is that simply being able to describe myself as an open extrovert doesn’t really start to describe what makes up the core of who is ME. Being open and an extrovert are simply two personality traits which may not necessarily be present in every social situation. People are not merely receptacles filled with traits, but rather sophisticated cognitive structures. The way we react to life events, respond to goals, self-regulate and experience well-being, these are a lot more indicative of what truly makes up the self of a person.
There is also the school of thought that argues that the self is made up of three domains: the first domain is the experiential self, what a person is conscious of experiencing. This is tied very closely to memory. The second domain is called the private self-consciousness system, the part that includes your self-concept and explicit beliefs and values (e.g., your religious and political beliefs). The third domain is the public self or persona. It refers to the public image that you attempt to project to others, which in turn effects how other people see you and interact with you.
In short, the human self is very complex indeed made up of many layers and facets. We are a product of the dominant discourses that were part of our lives as we were growing up, and those that we chose to retain and those that we chose to discard. We are a product of the experiences, narratives and stories of our lives and those of our families, and the memories that we choose to hold on to and those that we choose to suppress. And much more. Moreover, the self is not something fixed or ‘sole’ – we are constantly making comparisons with our own selves when faced with goals, achievements, disappointments, etc. and we use this to regulate our social behaviour in different contexts.
Research has shown that people who feel that they have a clearer idea of their self enjoy greater self-esteem, display more desirable behaviours and may be better equipped to deal with life’s challenges. On the other hand, a challenging life event can create a feeling of incongruence in how we perceive ourselves, and in turn this can be the cause of great mental distress bringing on depression and anxiety. In moments like these, reaching out for the right type of support can help us to find our way through the burdensome situations that life can throw at us from time to time.
If you think you would benefit from some professional support regarding understanding yourself better you can reach out here.
Charlotte Schembri has a background in psychology and education and has extensive experience in supporting students with different needs and their families. She is currently reading for a Masters in Family Therapy and Systemic Practice and forms part of the Willingness Team.
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McConnell, A., & Strain, L.M. (2007). Content and Structure of the Self-Concept. In C. Sedikides and S. Spencer (Eds.), The Self (pp. 51-74). Psychology Press, New York and East Sussex.
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