We all have a variety of different characteristics and things floating around in our heads. But when you dig down deep to the core, what is it that makes you, you?
I think a major part of the foundation of who we are is the sum of our entire life experiences. No one else has had the exact same combination of life experiences; that’s unique to each of us. We don’t retain memories of each individual event, but we still have a wealth of knowledge and skills that we accumulate throughout our lives.
Perspectives on the self
Before we get into the factors that influence who we are, what exactly is the self? Here’s a quick look at a few different perspectives.
A fundamental concept in Buddhism is non-self. The word Anatta is used for the principle that “there is in humans no permanent, underlying substance that can be called the soul” (Wikipedia). The belief that there is a self is viewed as a source of suffering. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about Buddhism to know the subtleties around how much this refers to a lack of permanent soul versus a lack of self in this lifetime.
There are various philosophic views on the self, one of them being that it is the source of consciousness. Many of us are familiar with Descartes’ belief cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). In psychology, the self plays a major role in motivation, cognition, feeling, and social identity.
In sociology, “the self can be redefined as a dynamic, responsive process that structures neural pathways according to past and present environments including material, social, and spiritual aspects” (Wikipedia). Concepts of the self can differ culturally, with western cultures being more individualistic and eastern cultures more interdependent. A sense of self develops within the context of social interactions along with the physical environment.
Acceptance and commitment therapy
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) would say that the self is the context in which thoughts and feelings occur rather than the content of those thoughts and feelings. One metaphor for this is that the self is a chessboard and the chess pieces that move across it are the thoughts and feelings we experience.
The social environment
We’re all influenced by our social environment. Childhood is a key time when we learn about the world around us. Children need attachment and nurturing, and when those things are denied, the effects can run deep and be very long-lasting. The adverse childhood experiences research has shown how damaging abuse, neglect, and other adverse circumstances can be to future health and wellbeing.
In addition to early childhood, I think the transition to adulthood is quite a significant time for really growing into oneself. For me, my university experience had a huge impact on the adult that I became and the way I look at the world. I went to a large university with a lot of international students, and it was a very culturally diverse place. I was pretty open-minded already, but I’d grown up in a small town where I wasn’t exposed to much. That exposure came in university, and it was also the time when I caught the travel bug. I’ve seen firsthand that there are many different ways of living life, and that’s really shaped the attitude that I bring to my own way of life.
While our interests don’t define us, they can certainly reflect who we are. A lack of balance in interests may feed certain aspects of the self while neglecting others.
I’ve always been interested in learning, and that curiosity has always been an important part of what makes me, me. My formal schooling may be finished, but without ongoing learning, I feel like I would be stagnating rather than growing.
In the past, I would have been more inclined to say that my interests, particularly travelling, were key parts of what made me, me. The more depression took over my life, the less of a role interests played for me. Initially, blogging was a way to spend some time and gain a sense of purpose, but as other roles and interests have fallen by the wayside, blogging has become an important part of how I interact with the world.
Acceptance and commitment therapy places a lot of emphasis on values. The prioritization of different values may shift over time, but the core values can be important reflections of who you are and what makes you that person. For example, I wouldn’t be the same person if I didn’t believe that we as a society have an obligation to support the less fortunate among us. A lot of those core, enduring values probably develop when we’re young and then are further refined by life experience.
Of course, personality traits shape who we are, with some playing a more defining role than others. Some traits may be relatively consistent over time, while others may vary in degree.
Being introverted plays a significant part in who I am. I’ve always been pretty introverted, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve swung to a much more extreme version of introversion.
Some people feel like they were always anxious or depressed, or had other patterns of experience consistent with mental illness. This may be related to the illness having an early onset, or it may relate to high levels of a trait like neuroticism, which involves an increased propensity towards experiencing negative emotions.
When I first got depressed, I conceptualized very distinct ill and well selves. This made sense to me in part because I was fully well before I got sick, so it felt very much like the depression was superimposed on top of my regular self. It was also because my head works differently when I’m depressed. Regardless of the content of the thoughts or the specific emotions felt, I have a different way of thinking and feeling when I’m depressed. And for me, that different way of thinking and feeling constitutes a different self.
I’ve never felt like my depressive illness is part of what makes me, me. The fact that my illness didn’t make an appearance until my late 20s made it easier for me to have a clear separation between what is me and what is illness. The illness is a skin glued onto me that isn’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t make me who I am. If anything, it acts as a barrier to being who I am.
The sense of being defined by one’s career is likely influenced by a few factors. One is whether it’s something that’s consistent over a long period of time. It would also make a difference whether the work was something one felt passionate about and whether the values of the career/profession are consistent with one’s own.
Being a nurse used to be a really important role identity for me. I saw it as a profession that I would work in for my whole career, I loved the work, and it was very values-congruent and personality-congruent. When mental illness disability brought an end to my career, letting go of that part of myself was quite a process.
So, that’s a bit about what makes me, me and the factors I can think of that play a role. What makes you, you?