My selves

After I posted a comment in an online conversation I was told by someone I know well in real life: “That doesn’t sound like the Peter Elias I’ve worked and played with over the years.”  My response was the simple observation that most of us automatically use different ‘voices’ in different settings: we don’t use the same vocabulary or phrasing when addressing a work colleague, a grandparent, a state trooper, or a skiing buddy. Code switching is a current term for this.

This interchange got me thinking about my different voices, and the fact that they really represent different aspects of who I am. As I explored the value and challenge of knowing myself (these selves), I came to the following conclusion: my ‘self’ is a constantly evolving collection of related, overlapping lenses through which I experience and understand the world and how I interact with it. It is not something I was born with, but emerges from relationships and experiences.

It is easy for us to think that the self is a singular, constant, innate, coherent being that resides somewhere in our minds and directs our thoughts and actions. This is a fiction. A useful fiction, perhaps, but a fiction nonetheless.

Through the ages, many have noted the value of knowing one’s self:

"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom."–Aristotle
"To be curious about that which is not one's concern while still in ignorance of oneself is absurd."–Plato
"The only journey is the journey within."–Rainer Maria Rilke
“To thine own self be true…” —Shakespeare’s Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet

Nietzsche understood how hard a task self knowledge is:  "One's own self is well hidden from one's own self; of all mines of treasure, one's own is the last to be dug up." The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus said something similar: “The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”

Thomas Szasz clearly understood that the ‘self’ is constructed rather than discovered: “ People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates."  And Brian Lowery does a wonderful job of discussing the fact that we have multiple selves that are fluid, and exist because of our contexts and relationships.

It’s been fun to think about some of my selves. This is probably not a complete list:

I have a projected self, which I think of as my visible public persona. This is the self I present to others and represents the role I am playing at any given time in my various social contexts. Some psychologists refer to this as my ‘behavioral self’.

I have a mirrored or reflected self. This is the self that others see me as. It is a product of the interactions between my projected self and their private and public reactions to my public self. (Others includes culture, which acts as a ‘generalized other’.) This mirrored self (the way people respond to me) is one of many factors that evokes change in my various selves.

I have a private self, hidden from others (I hope) and my internal persona. This is who I believe I am. It is the lens through which I view (experience) the world. It is the character I think of as choosing which ‘self’ should be performing in any given situation. In a way, this is like the protagonist or main character as perceived by the author of a novel.  It is my way of being the central character (and sometimes the hero) of my own story.

I have an ideal self. This is what I would like my private self to be, and even on my best days is more aspirational than real.

I have an unknown self. This is the self I cannot see, understand, or control from within any of my various known selves. (Heisenberg and Kant both understood that it is impossible to fully observe - let alone understand - any system from within that system.) Various schools of philosophy and psychology have given this unknown self names: the unconscious, subconscious, psyche, ego, and countless neuro-behavioral-cognitive theories and terms.

There are some interesting and potentially important implications that arise from this paradigm:

  • It is impossible to know or understand one’s self in isolation, apart from one’s context and relationships. One cannot be oneself by oneself.
  • Objectivity doesn’t exist except as a concept. We observe, react, judge, and behave based on the lenses of our self-constructed and non-stable selves. The concepts, categories, and boundaries we create are constructs, personalized reflections of reality but not real objects like trees or rocks. Our perceptions and cognitions provide a usually useful map of the territory - but we should not confuse the map with the territory.
  • Freedom (the ability to think, talk, act, believe, or even just ‘be’ without being influenced by others) is impossible. It would require having no interactions, no relationships, no contexts. It is incompatible with being human.
  • Just as my ‘self’ evolves in response to the words and actions of others as they create and then respond to my mirrored self, so too, my words and actions will impact others and their various selves. This generates for me an ethical imperative to be cognizant of and take into account the impact my selves have on others.


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