Identity and identity crises belongs to being human, and especially being human in a post-modern era. In many ways our personality is fashioned in harmony or disharmony with our interpersonal relationships. Who am I, really?
To develop or create an identity is not an easy process. It is not something you can do on your own. Personality is something that matures through social interaction and your sense of self is slowly shaped when you engage in the social games people play. In many ways our personality is fashioned in harmony or disharmony with our interpersonal relationships. When there are many demands calling for our attention, and we feel pressured in many ways, and perhaps some of the requirements are contradictory, it will be extra hard to find our place and act in a way that is most appropriate for ourselves and our social liabilities. In such cases, one must take into account ones true feelings, desires and listen to the inner voice, but again it is not certain that we actually know what we want. Who am I? How did I become me? Can I change? Do I want to change… change into what? In this article we will look at the development of personality and identity. We will also consider some difficulties that might foster a personality disorder or problems in relationships to others.
Kenneth Gergen (1991) is a prominent representative of social constructionism, and he understands the self or personality as socially conditioned. In other words, he believes that human being is entirely a product of social interaction. Professor of Philosophy Dorte Marie Søndergaard (1996) from Denmark takes on a similar approach when she talks about multiple selves. The latter means simply that personality is context dependent and thus altered in different social contexts. Most people will probably recognize themselves in this social theory of individual development. A man is never quite the same at work with his colleges as he is home with his wife, or out partying with friends for that matter. This diversity in our sense of self might sometimes create a kind of identity problem. Who am I, really?
Newton’s second law of motion tells us about the effect of net force on a body. Net force is understood as the sum of all forces acting on a body. Thus, force is equal to the acceleration produced per unit mass. The law goes on to clarify that the higher the mass of the body, the lower is the acceleration. Let us try to view this from the angle of the working of our mental frame. The mass is the core determinant of the effect of random forces that will work on us in this journey of learning. The higher the mass the less is the disturbance on the object from its path.
The object is the individual and the forces acting on the object refer to the impressions of the world at large. Mass refers to the weight of the individual’s view of the self (mental equilibrium) and acceleration is determined by the action of force on the individual.
Complex? Let us clarify this and make it more concrete.
Joanna (the object) comes from a strictly Catholic background. She believes in her innate goodness and tries to live up to this image of herself. At home, Joanna’s belief in herself is reinforced as her family is openly appreciative of everything she does. Her neighbors view her as a ‘good girl’ though she doesn’t have many friends. At work, however, Joanna is seen as a little uppity, unable to get along with co-workers and difficult to get cooperation from. The last time she tried to take a copy of a paper that her boss wanted, the machine did not work. When she asked for help, a few colleagues looked at her blankly and returned to their work. She was delayed at the copier for almost a half hour and her boss was livid. She later understood that a new copier had been placed at the other end of the office and none of her colleagues had bothered to inform her. Joanna states that she doesn’t really care about her colleagues, after all she is there to work for her boss. Secretly, she feels miserable at the work place since she feels that her co-workers gang up on her every time. This is a belief that Joanna has had since the time she was in school.
Joanna has a boyfriend who wishes she would loosen up a bit and hang out with him and his social group. Joanna avoids going but believes this is against her religious tenets and decides against it. She seriously believes she should join a religious order and dedicate her life to God since other people do not relate to her.
We now have a fair idea of the pull and push forces acting on Joanna – her self-image, the expectations of her family and her drive to live up to them, the likely behaviours that she is exhibiting at the work place and with her boyfriend and the feelings generated by these interactions.
Mass is determined by the equilibrium of an individual, as in the value a person places on the self regardless of achievements, statements of acceptance or rejection by others and any other external forces that come into play. The higher the mass of the object, the lesser is the effect of the force.
We are able to gauge that some forces acting on Joanna are likely to be stronger than others. Some forces will be positive to her while some are negative. Her equilibrium will determine her reactions and the direction she moves in.
Now, let us consider a scenario where the forces acting upon her change. Joanna is called in by her boss and given the feedback that there has been a serious complaint about her. She failed to provide timely information to a colleague, which resulted in a customer service delay that was escalated to the head of the company. Joanna starts to explain but is told that her attitude is a cause for concern and she needs to enter a discussion with the HR Manager. Joanna is devastated; she wants to explain how she has been harassed by her colleague. Her superior does not want to know her side of the story and she expects that the HR Manager will not give her a chance to speak either. As she expects, the HR Manager explains the need for building and maintaining a rapport with colleagues and to take a larger view of her actions.
Joanna meets her boyfriend whose immediate response is, “Obviously they don’t like you! You believe you are walking a few feet above the ground, but haven’t any achievements to show for it. Huh! If you were so great you would be somewhere else, not working as a customer service flunky.”
Joanna is stung. Her boyfriend proceeds to tell her he wants some time to reconsider their relationship. “I don’t know if I can have a long term relationship with someone who wants to be a nun and believes that this makes her superior to everyone else. You ought to check what attitudes religion recommends.”
Now, we see the action of forces working on Joanna’s ‘mass’. When she returns home and recounts the events to her family, they rally around her. Her strong need for acceptance is satisfied by her family. The extent of equilibrium determines whether she analyses why she is facing unpleasantness in the workplace and choose remedies or chooses to blame her colleagues and the entire company as unfair. It determines for her whether she needs to consider changes within her behavior repertoire or continue as she has in the past and change the circumstances by finding a new job.
The stronger a person’s beliefs about the self the better able are they to adapt to new situations. One person may lose his job and turn to alcoholism while another takes it as a learning and chooses a new line of business or a new way of working. The first displays signs of low equilibrium while the latter is the opposite.
Emotional and mental equilibrium is something we earn if we dare to look at our own faults and examine the situations where we run into conflict with other people. To look for errors in others are generally not a constructive strategy, even though the counterpart may have the main responsibility for the conflict at hand. It is only our own reaction we have the possibility and ability to adjust. If we can encounter people with openness, avoid aggressive or passive aggressive behaviour, try to control our automatic defence strategies when we feel pressured and take lessons from problematic events, rather than ending up in bitterness, we can call ourselves psychologically wise or emotionally intelligent. People with this kind of abilities rarely end up in conflicts and they usually have a high degree of satisfaction in life. They also have a superior psychological equilibrium (a solid mass, i.e. solid confidence) that makes them resistant and able to handle strong forces that affect them without losing its steady course through life.
We will continue this discussion and the story of Joanna in Part II: To build a confident personality Part II: “A lot of evidence indicates that emotional control and focus on a greater meaning, far beyond one’s own personal life and worries, are important aspects of mental balance. In this article we will continue to explore personality development and hopefully gain more insight to the question of mental equilibrium”. Read more
Gergen, Kenneth J. (1991). The Saturated Self. Basic Books.
Søndergaard, Dorte Marie (1996). Social konstruktionisme – et grundlag for at se kroppen som tegn. I: Sociologi i dag, nr. 4, 1996.