Fundamentals #5: Self, Value & Identity
So far as a child, from birth through approximately two years of age, we have felt and absorbed interactions with our parents and caretakers and now have a rough expectation or “instinct” for what we can expect from them in the form of nurturance and attention. We are also in the process of learning the communicable media of words for the mind by developing a vocabulary “paired” with our physical senses that labels colors, size, texture, temperature and sound. So far this has simply been “pairing” labels to observations and setting the stage for the first act of introducing the concept of value. Simultaneously, we also are beginning to perceive the distance or separation between us and who we want attention from. It is this distance and separation that will eventually allow us to apply the concept and recognition of value to ourselves and others.
In order to apply value to something things must also exist that we don’t want so we can make comparisons. Think about it. If you’re aware of what you do like or want, you also must know what you don’t like or want. Right? Unfortunately, in our culture we know more of what we don’t want, talk mostly about that and, often, only have a foggy impression of what we do want. If you don’t believe me, just make two lists: one listing the things you don’t want and one listing the things you do want. I guarantee, the list of what you don’t want will be, at the least, twice as long as what you do want. We even talk about what we do want in terms of what we don’t want or in double negatives. How can this be you say? How many times have you said, “What I want is to not have to…” or “I wish I didn’t have to…?” We also and often focus on what we want from a perspective of what we don’t have. For example, “I wish I had more time for myself…” or I wish I had more money…” The inference is that it is assumed that you don’t. It’s crazy but that little word “no” that we first hear in beginning our vocabulary has tremendous bearing on how we approach life. Don’t believe me? Count how many times we’ve heard the ordinary parent using the word “no” with a toddler and how many times the word “yes” is used. How else do I stop my toddler from hurting themselves you say? Simple; without fuss or fanfare, simply redirect them. The less we use the word, the less power a negative inference will have in our child’s life. The “terrible twos” will also be a lot less intense for us to deal with if we redirect more than using the word “no.”
Emphasis and repetition of any word creates an intensity and power in it. Other words with important meaning that we hear from baby are Mommy and Daddy. For adults it’s love, sex and money. See my point? Why should “no” be any different? Not to belabor the point but it is the word “no” which drives home the feeling of separation, rejection and the fact that at this age we have little or no control over how the world treats us let alone how much choice we have in what we’re allowed to do. Since it is one of the first words we learn, it has a long history of creating and recreating the feeling of a door slamming in our face. I have obviously digressed…but I think necessarily so. Now, let’s return to our child and their indoctrination into our culture.
Introducing value happens extremely slowly over time. Remember, between two and, at the least, adolescence, we are still building a vocabulary to simply describe things and what we feel. Applying value is a dimension of mental activity which is much more subtle and involves immersion in a culture and family tradition in order to gain recognition and expression. It is one of the building blocks for giving meaning to our separation from the womb and our continuing to recognize the effects of that separation through our perceived distance from others. Let’s explore where value comes from.
No matter what we need or want from others the type of response we receive will trigger a feeling within us. The intensity we feel and the attention we give that feeling, and the circumstances that elicited it, are all factors that are dependent on whether it is satisfied or not. When we do receive what we need, want or asked for we usually just take it in stride and move on to the next quest or requirement. But when we don’t receive what we need, want or asked for, that need, want or request we initially approached others with is intensified. Why? Because not receiving what we need, want or requested increases our feeling of lack and yearning for it beyond what we started with and it then receives more of our attention. Remember, this process is a dynamic establishing our locus of control (L.O.C.). With each additional denial or refusal the energy and feeling triggered by that denial grows and our future expectation of the likelihood of having our need, want or request satisfied diminishes.
In continuous denial we can see that our feeling of distance and separation between where we are and where we want to be is getting wider. Through our growing expectation of denial, validated by our memory of our previous feelings, we become a “self-fulfilling prophesy” in repeating the same experience over and over again. As we become further and further separated from what we need and want and those who can provide it, the intensity and distance between us and others increases to the point where we begin to see and feel ourselves as being separate from the “outside” world. This is one of the first hallmarks of learning self-awareness, that is, we become aware of ourselves as being separate from the world. Meanwhile, as our vocabulary continues to develop, we accept labels of separation applied to us by our parents and caretakers such as good, bad, tall, short, smart, stupid, etc. It is necessary to build a solid baseline of language before meaning will begin to make sense and even then it still will be a continuous process which will last well into and perhaps past adolescence. Initially we may not yet relate to or understand most of these labels, but as our vocabulary and comprehension increase we begin to paint a picture of ourselves from the memories of our past labeling. From this a perceived “Self” begins to emerge complete with labels assigned by the “outside” world. This picture is what psychologists call our ego. However, this ego is not to be confused with our social and contemporary meaning of excessive pride and contrived superiority. It is simply a mental structure yielding an awareness of a “self.”
Our ego is a simple coalescing structure comprised of remembered labels applied by the external world, our feelings about those labels and the experiences that led to them. Soon, the memory of them will be “fully” absorbed and we will have been “programmed” to be triggered into “feeling” emotionally (feelings “paired” with thoughts) good, bad, tall, short, etc. when the labels are spoken by others. These labels and more will slowly become how we identify ourselves, especially, in light of the fact that they resonate with the “who” that others perceive us as. Their first “application” and acceptance will occur within our primary family and close friends.
As we grow older and make more contacts outside our family and circle of friends our assigned labels may be perceived similarly but, more often than not, will shift to a meaning that’s perceived differently from those in our “family” circle. After all, “strangers” don’t know us as well as our family and friends. This will have the effect of broadening our perceived identity, theirs and ours, while creating difficulty, if not contrast, as to how or why we may be perceived differently by our “family” circle and those outside of it. As we perceive our differing identity qualities as applied by our “family” circle and “outside” contacts we may begin to prefer and acquiesce to some labels over others due to their ability to gain the attention and nurturance that we need or want from them. The ones that we no longer receive positive responses from will be either denied or remain unacknowledged but will still be a retained memory as having been being applied to us. Hence, we will still resonate with it but just not outwardly. This is one of the first conflicts in how we wish to “present” ourselves and will confuse the clarity we might have about who we are. This confusion will intensify the feeling of separation but will also cause us to look at our “self” and “question” why we might be perceived the way we are by some and not others. Depending on the age we are, the “questioning” may not be as much in verbal terms due to the continuing need for more depth in understanding language but perhaps more sensed in an “uncomfortable” feeling corresponding to a feeling we as adults might have as seeming to be incongruent or out of phase. In psychological terms we might call this cognitive dissonance. This is where our assumptions, desired or not, don’t match our perceived reality.
The progression of developing and integrating these labels and qualities and forming a perspective of “self” composed of more than just feelings happens very slowly. It occurs much the same way as we might gather ingredients to prepare a meal having multiple steps before the completion of the final dish. We could also say that the dish is more than the sum of its ingredients. That is, the structure for defining the “self” and the world is much more than just the composite of its labels and different relationships. This growing coalescence lends itself to a developing “self” awareness much like a group of elements produce a compound that exhibits characteristics different and more than what’s exhibited by any one of them independently. Another way to describe it would be like differing weather factors coming together to create a perfect storm; something which surpasses the force or intensity of any one of its meteorological components.
Up to this point our child has probably progressed into school and through a couple of grades putting them somewhere between five and eight years of age. We see that our notion of value has only started to build as the realization of our growing separation from others emerges through the applying of labels of character and the responses of others to us and their chosen labels for us. Because the mind works on the separation of experiences through labeling and the more developed and “in control” our mental vehicle becomes, the more it makes sense that we feel an increasing sense of being separate from and definable by others. As that structure coalesces our perceived “self” or identity begins to emerge which psychologists call our ego. As the responses we receive from others begins to differ, the more our perception of our “self” begins to split and the more confusion we have about how to identify ourselves. It’s this difference or cognitive dissonance that leads us into our next section on the shadow.