October 1, 2016

What shapes our sense of identity?

Sense of identity

For a long time I’ve held the view that my sense of identity is three-pronged:

  • who I think I am,
  • who I think others think I am, and
  • who I actually am.

It’s a complex topic but I recently questioned the aspect: ‘who I think others think I am’.

Should we care what others think of us?

Lauren Miller says in this podcast, that too often we are slaves to what she calls ‘the wheel of approval’. Lauren advocates that we should not be held bound, nor actively seek the approval of others. We should find peace within ourselves purely by the fact we exist. She says our primary purpose for living on this planet is to ‘love’ others.

Lauren’s words challenged me to think about this anew. How much should we care about what others think of us? Should we not care at all? Is our caring vital? Or is the answer somewhere in between?

If I take a step back at this point, I can see there is one major weakness in my definition of identity. There is no guarantee my perception of what others think about me, is actually correct. How I perceive others perceive me is a construction of my own imagination. It is based on reading how others behave towards me, things they say or do. Isn’t it what we all do though – try to gauge or guess what others think about us? Doesn’t that help to mould and shape how we think about ourselves?

How we think about ourselvesWhen someone gives us direct feedback, i.e. tells us what they think about us either as criticism or as encouragement, I think it is reasonable that we accept that as being a true indication of what they think of us. But even then, there are issues about whether they are being honest or have ulterior motives.

I guess the whole issue gets really murky when we start guessing what people think about us, i.e. by the way they communicate, or by the fact they don’t communicate, or by reading body language or even by hearing what someone else tells us they think about us. That gets really tricky and even more murky … and potentially dangerous.

Murky or not, I think all these factors do feed into our sense of self.

But when considering the risks of shaping ourselves based on what others think about us, especially when we might well be completely wrong, perhaps Lauren has a point.

What if we don’t care what others think?

Is this a valid position? It seemed to be what Lauren was advocating. If we go to Lauren’s extreme and actively train ourselves to not be influenced by what others think of us, what happens then? Isn’t one of the defining characteristics of a psychopath, that they are incapable of caring what other people think of them?

This seems extreme and not practicable to me.

I would argue that we very much need to care, at least on some level, what our peers and others in our social group think about us and how we behave. Doesn’t this become part of our moral compass and helps us to fit in, to function within social networks?

Perhaps Lauren’s choice of the word ‘slave’ is critical here. If we are solely driven by how we perceive others perceive us, we could be paralysed, especially if our perceptions lead us to negative emotions and feelings about ourselves.

A question of balance

My conclusion is that it is important for us to consider how others see us, but to not be controlled by what others think of us. Rather it should be a useful check-in tool, to enable recalibration of moral decisions and general social behaviour. But perhaps Lauren has a point that we should not become enslaved to what we think others think about us, especially if that locks us into self-effacing self-destructive thought cycles.Balance in identity

So, while I shall accept that I am naturally inclined to contemplate what I think people think about me, I shall avoid holding the ‘wheel of approval’ of others as paramount. The essence of my value as a person should be derived by remaining true to my core values and accepting my plain, simple, existence on this planet.

Love to hear what you think.

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