I’ve been engaging in a little bit of introspection regarding self-identity this week. It sprung up from several conversations with a friend of mine, mixed with some comments from the book I’m currently reading, The Feminine Mystique (amazon.ca) by Betty Friedan.1 These sources sparked thoughts about the way in which people perceive themselves, and how that affects their own direction in life.
Friedan discusses at one point how women in the 1960s were generally identified by who they were rather than what they did. While men were defined by their achievements: their profession, their skills, their victories and defeats; women were instead defined by their anatomy: their ability to become mothers. In other words, women were fulfilling their role by just existing long enough to become pregnant. I don’t think I’m qualified to discuss how such attitudes have changed since the time of Friedan’s writing—I expect that we’ve likely made some progress toward equality in this area, but there is likely still more to be done—but I would like to extend this toward a slightly broader perspective.
These two basic ways of viewing oneself, by one’s internal traits or by one’s external actions, have various implications.2 People who generally define themselves by their actions will be driven to succeed, to make various societal achievements, and so on. Those defining themselves by their traits will set goals related more toward developing moral character and a stable sense of self. Neither of these is inherently right or wrong; they are likely best suited as a balancing act between the two. All the same, that these basic modes of self-identity are able to affect one’s motivations and desires means that they can dramatically impact the course of one’s life.
In my own life, I feel as though I have generally perceived myself by my actions. Some of this is likely due to growing up in a Western culture, where achievements are generally given more recognition than moral character. It also likely has to do with being a man, since (like Friedan pointed out) men generally are perceived by their actions. This has slowly been changing, though, and my interest in ethics and my strong motivation for self-improvement (in an ethical sense) seems to be a result of a growing emphasis on perceiving myself in terms of my internal character. All the same, as I’ve begun to notice, my sense of internal self seems to be grossly underdeveloped. While conversing with the friend I mentioned earlier, I realized that I hesitate when discussing myself (my inner self, that is). I am comfortable discussing politics, religion, science, current events, and so on, and I even (save for my modesty) have little trouble talking about my accomplishments, but when it comes to my inner sense of self-identity—“who I am”—I stumble. I have noticed several times that often my preferences in areas which should be important to me are not much more than basic, raw desires until I actually experience a pressing need to define them. It’s only after stumbling onto a situation where I need nuanced preferences that I suddenly have to think about what I actually prefer.
I would like to change this. I find very little satisfaction in defining myself merely in terms of what I do or have done. Such external acts certainly have some meaning to me, but without a stable sense of inner self on which to anchor them, I sometimes feel adrift. When I stumble and stutter with expressing basic emotions, communicating clearly about my desires, and developing a clear picture of my own character, I know something needs to change. Achievement without empathy is futile, just as emotion without action is powerless. By developing an inner identity based on who I am, I can create a more stable, integrated sense of self that connects with my identity based on what I do. And that, in the end, seems to be a much more fulfilling way to live.
- As a side note, it’s an excellent book, and you should all read it. [↩]
- I should note that what follows here is not necessarily the result of any significant research on the matter. It is simply my own musings. But I’d love to see some research in this area to see if my own thoughts line up with reality. [↩]